by Mahmood Hakamian
In 1986, around 1,000 members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) travelled to Iraq in order to build a new operations base for their resistance group with the hopes of bringing democracy to Iran.
They were given a barren patch of land in the desert, near the Iranian border, which had a few deserted and partially-constructed buildings, but no running water or electricity. This was Camp Ashraf. It expanded quickly as MEK supporters from the US and the EU travelled to the camp in order to help free the Iranian people from the grasp of the mullahs.
At the time, the Iran-Iraq war was in its fifth year, and the MEK, Iraq, and the Iranian people all wanted the conflict to end quickly. Iraq had offered peace in 1982, but the mullahs refused because they wanted to destroy Iraq and take it over for themselves.
The MEK, in an effort to speed up the resolution to the war, formed the National Liberation Army (NLA) to take part in battles against Iran separately from the Iraqi army. Eventually the mullahs, scared that the MEK would spark a revolution in Iran, agreed to a UN ceasefire.
After the war had ended, the MEK turned Ashraf into a fully functioning 14-square-mile city, which included a mosque, university, museum, shopping centre and many other facilities. They were often the target of missiles attacks by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), but thanks to the MEK’s secure bunkers, casualties were minimal. The MEK remained dedicated to their objectives of bringing freedom to Iran.
In both Gulf Wars, the MEK declared themselves neutral and consolidated its forces to avoid any involvement in the conflict. This was successful in the first Gulf War and meant the MEK barely saw any fighting until after the end of the war.
Shortly after Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the first Gulf War, the IRGC took advantage of the chaos in Iraq and crossed the borders with the intention of destroying the MEK, but the MEK were prepared and launched counter attacks which caused huge losses for the IRGC and forced them to retreat in defeat.
In the second Gulf War, the West ignored the MEK’s declaration of neutrality and made a secret deal with the Iranian Regime to bomb the MEK in exchange for Iran keeping out of the war. The airstrikes from US and British air forces resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 MEK members.
When the US-led arrived at Camp Ashraf, the MEK didn’t resist, but refused to surrender on the basis that they hadn’t been involved in the war. The MEK signed an agreement of “mutual understanding and coordination” and voluntarily handed over their weapons, in exchange for protection from the US.
After a 16-month investigation of the MEK, which found that the MEK were not enemy combatants and had not fought against the multinational forces, the MEK received protected persons status under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
This should have protected MEK members from danger, violence, coercion, and intimidation, and enshrined their rights to food, health care, contact with the outside world, employment, and fair treatment under the law.
However, when US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2009 and transferred the responsibility for the MEK members to the Iraqi government, this went downhill fast.
Learn about that and the MEK’s forced relocation to Camp Liberty next week.