As the United States advances steadily toward a confrontation with Iran, the fate of an Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group appears to have been sealed. It has now been confirmed that Bulgarian troops will assume control of the formerly-armed Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MKO) organization’s Ashraf camp. This move likely constitutes the final stage of removing the MKO from Iraq, a process that began with the U.S. bombing of the organization’s bases in April 2003.
The most important question is whether the dismantlement of the MKO (listed as a terrorist organization in the U.S. and Europe) in Iraq will have any impact on U.S.-Iranian relations, especially at a time when the latter is laying the foundations for a long-term confrontation with the Islamic Republic. Moreover, it is unclear whether the U.S. decision to dissolve the military component of the MKO will propel the Iranians to reciprocate with greater cooperation in the battle against al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant organizations.
Bulgarians in Ashraf
According to the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense, the mission of 154 soldiers, including 34 staff officers, will be a military-humanitarian mission and is not expected to last for more than 12 months (Xinhua, January 14). Bulgarian soldiers will travel to Iraq with their conventional equipment, including sub-machine guns, which would only be used in response to threats from outside the Ashraf camp. Ashraf is close to Khalis (in Diyala province), an area that is considered to be a stronghold of Iraqi nationalist guerrillas. Not surprisingly, U.S. forces will be deployed around Ashraf to ensure wider security, but the Bulgarians are expected to have "considerable" control over daily life inside Ashraf where several thousand aging Iranian dissidents remain in limbo.
This will be the first time that non-U.S. soldiers have been involved in dealing with the MKO in Iraq. Interestingly, the Bulgarians’ primary task is to ensure security "inside" the camp. There is little doubt this signifies a major development relating to the status of the MKO in the near future, with the camp’s complete dismantlement within 12 months a distinct possibility. After all, this is the first time coalition troops have been deployed inside Ashraf. Previously, U.S. forces have been stationed immediately outside the camp and rarely interfere in the daily routine of its inhabitants.
The fact that it has taken nearly three years to decisively deal with the MKO in Iraq has led some observers to claim the group enjoys the protection of influential groups in the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies, which are anxious to use the organization as leverage against Iran. There is no evidence, however, of collusion between any agency of the U.S. government and the MKO. In fact, careful review of how the U.S. has treated the MKO since April 2003 reveals a very skillful, subtle and almost passive approach to dissolve what is a remarkably cohesive and fanatical cult-army with the least amount of resistance.
From the outset, U.S. military intelligence was concerned about the possibility of carnage and mass suicides inside Ashraf in the event of a sudden move to dissolve the camp. A senior U.S. military source, speaking anonymously, told this author in September 2005 that from the beginning of negotiations with the MKO, the leaders began to issue vague but unmistakable threats of mass suicide should any action be taken to forcibly disperse members. The seriousness of this threat became evident when several members set themselves on fire in Europe to protest the detention of Maryam Rajavi and other leaders by French counter-terrorism forces in June 2003.
By September 2003, a Temporary International Presence Facility (TIPF) was established just outside Ashraf to house the steady drip of disaffected MKO members who sought "refuge" with U.S. military police during the identification interviews. The total number of detained MKO inside Ashraf was 3,855, including 800 women. Currently just over 3,450 remain in the camp itself. Of the disaffected and dissident members who transferred to TIPF, 370 have accepted an amnesty by the Iranian government and returned to the country with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights.
The advent of "voluntary repatriation" for disaffected members was seen as a major threat by the MKO, whose enmity toward Iran is so deep-rooted that for the past 25 years it has ordered its members and active sympathizers to sever all links with Iran. In the past, even peripheral sympathizers who traveled to Iran were shunned by the organization, fearing that its attempts to depict life inside the country as darkly as possible would be fatally undermined by such travels.
Not surprisingly, the MKO began a vociferous propaganda campaign against TIPF, telling members the U.S. was running a "mini Abu Ghraib," where men and women are tortured and the latter would even run the risk of being raped by U.S. soldiers. At a more sophisticated level, the organization projected TIPF as a bastion of Iranian intelligence, and tried to connect this to the wider reality in post-Saddam Iraq where pro-Iranian forces stand accused of exploiting the U.S. military presence to seize control of key aspects of Iraqi life. Interestingly, this kind of sweeping and banal analysis converges with the rhetoric of the nationalist insurgents in Iraq who bemoan a covert Iranian "occupation," masked by the highly-visible U.S. military presence.
Yet, the MKO’s relentless psychological warfare against TIPF and its residents was essentially driven by credible fears of a complete collapse of morale inside Ashraf. This fear was amplified by the remarkably quick process through which disaffected MKO left TIPF for Iran and then turned up in Europe to further expose the organization’s bizarre cult-like practices. It is worth noting that Amnesty International has "concerns" about conditions in the Ashraf camp, while Human Rights Watch published a report in May 2005 detailing some of the serious human rights violations practiced routinely by the MKO in the years up to 2002, based on witness statements made by former members now living in Europe (Human Rights Watch, May 2005).
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this morale remains a major problem and defections have recently increased. Four former MKO members, who returned to Iran on January 14, said depression and desperation are endemic and that members are showing a greater propensity to disobey orders and refuse to attend daily brainwashing sessions (https://www.nejatngo.org/news.php?news_id=1622, January 24). Behzad Alishahi, the most recent defector to reach Europe, told Voice of America: "if the Red Cross provides a safe haven, over 80 percent of the camp would leave and only a core of around 20 percent would remain" (Voice of America, November 13, 2005).
An astute move to designate MKO members as protected persons in July 2004, rather than as prisoners of war—which the MKO wrongly interpreted as a favor—enabled the U.S. to diminish this small fanatical army to the point of dissolution before it hands them over to the Bulgarians, and subsequently to the Iraqis and the UN. The designation of July 2004 was an intrinsic part of a highly sophisticated policy of duping the MKO into believing it had influence with the U.S., while at the same time weakening its formidable internal command structure to the point that it can no longer control dissent inside Ashraf, let alone resist forced dismantlement.
Articles 25 and 26 of the Fourth Geneva Convention obliged the U.S. to facilitate visits to Camp Ashraf by the inhabitants’ families. Some families traveling from Iran had not seen their relatives for more than 20 years. The emotional reunions inevitably led to more disaffection, leading the MKO to complain to U.S. military authorities that Iranian intelligence was exploiting the visits to gather information and recruit disaffected members. Moreover, as telephone and e-mail contact were established with relatives, news from the outside world increasingly penetrated the camp, alerting long-term inhabitants to the depth of their estrangement.
As MKO control gradually weakened, U.S. control increased. Last summer, restrictions were imposed on the movement of MKO leaders outside Camp Ashraf who had previously enjoyed freedom of movement under escort. In the autumn, a letter was issued to every individual resident outlining their rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention and emphasizing their right to leave Iraq if they wish (Survivors’ Report, November 2005). Moreover, while U.S. forces have allowed physical conditions in Camp Ashraf to gradually degenerate, they have taken care to improve conditions in TIPF, thus creating more incentives for disaffected members to defect. Indeed, education programs, recreation facilities, paid work and the building of two new compounds indicate that the movement of greater numbers to TIPF is expected over the coming months.
It is at this point that the U.S. military in Iraq is handing Ashraf and its inhabitants to the Bulgarian military. It is expected that a small Bulgarian military force, working alongside the ICRC and UNHCR, will dismantle the remaining internal command structure of the organization. Chief of the General Staff of the Bulgarian Army General Nikola Kolev, speaking informally to journalists in Sofia, said the mission included "maintaining order and rendering assistance to the refugees living there" (Focus News, December 22, 2005). In an interview with the author on January 14, the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense admitted the unit will be armed with electroshock truncheons and other equipment designed for crowd control. The use of such equipment indicates that U.S. authorities anticipate MKO commanders will foment resistance should the Bulgarians try to forcibly remove the rank and file members.
Implications for U.S.-Iranian Relations
It is ironic that the United States is dismantling the MKO at a time when relations with Iran have reached an all-time low. While the MKO is a listed terrorist entity and is widely regarded as a bizarre cult, it is also the only organized and noteworthy opposition to the Islamic Republic. Yet, the organization has very little (if any) support inside Iran and is generally despised by Iranians, not least because of its former alliance with Saddam Hussein. Moreover, the Iranian security establishment has long let it be known it is not interested in the fate of the MKO, which it regarded as a spent force well before the 2003 war against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
It is perhaps this reality that led the U.S. to decisively deal with the MKO and remove it from Iraq. While the U.S. cannot expect to win praise from Iran and its supporters, its skillful handling of the MKO file will win it much sympathy from victims of MKO terrorism in Iran who number in the tens of thousands.
Insofar as the war on terrorism is concerned, the Iranians have always denied rumors of near-deals with the U.S. to swap senior MKO members for al-Qaeda operatives allegedly in Iranian detention. On the more credible issue of Iranian support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, it is highly unlikely that any half-hearted gesture by the U.S. would entice the Islamic Republic to end its support for organizations that it regards as central to its national security interests in the Middle East.
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By Massoud Khodabandeh, Terrorism Monitor
Volume 4, Issue 3 (February 9, 2006)