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Terrorists or Fall Guys?

The MEK puzzle.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By LEE SMITH
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The road map charted by Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright never led to the dialogue of civilizations that Khatami promised, and Washington was stuck with an albatross around its neck. The MEK had not participated in a terrorist attack on Americans since the mid-’70s, and even then it seems that the group responsible for at least some of the violence was a Marxist element within the MEK. Regardless, as Reuel Marc Gerecht, an Iran specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tells me, “they were never as bad in their anti-American activity as the PLO.” Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat had given direct orders to kill the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Cleo Noel, and yet during the Clinton years the late PLO leader was a welcome guest at the White House. “If the PLO can be rehabilitated,” says Gerecht, “so can the MEK.”

The confusion that the Clinton administration had sown by politicizing an FTO designation would be compounded after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The MEK had long been hosted by Saddam Hussein, and stands accused of fighting alongside him in the eight-year-long Iraq-Iran war. U.S. forces moved the remaining MEK members from various sites around Iraq to Camp Ashraf. “It was in the middle of nowhere and a great place to disarm them,” says Brig. Gen. David Phillips, the retired commandant of the U.S. Army Military Police, whose job was to disarm the MEK.

Phillips says that in the wake of 9/11 he was thrilled to have the opportunity to stick it to a band of terrorists. But that’s not what he found. “We investigated all 3,400 members with the FBI,” Phillips says. “I thought the FBI would come with a list, saying these are the 200 people we want, and I continued to pressure my intelligence officers, but they kept coming back to me, saying, ‘Sir, we can’t find much.’ The FBI found no credible allegations against them and said we’re out of here.”

Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon promised that in exchange for disarming, the MEK would receive protected person status, but now, says Phillips, “we’re walking away from that promise.” The reason, as usual, is trepidation about antagonizing the Iranian regime, and the self-inflicted anxiety that seems to strike U.S. policymakers whenever it comes to dealing with the Islamic Republic.

Tehran wanted Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to close Ashraf and expel the MEK, and the Iraqi prime minister sought relief from the Americans. Some U.S. officials argued that it was wrong to go back on a promise to a population under its protection and urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to delist the MEK. If the MEK were free of the FTO designation, the United States could have accepted some of its members as refugees and encouraged allies in the region and Europe to do the same. Rice balked, fearing the Iranians would take their anger out on U.S. troops, sending even more IEDs across the border to kill Americans.

The problem was passed on to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has bizarrely explained that a “key factor” in her decision on the MEK’s designation will be the organization’s “cooperation in the successful and peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf” and relocation to Camp Liberty, an Iraqi facility where conditions, say MEK advocates like Phillips, are horrific. 

The point of moving the group from Ashraf to Liberty is to separate them from their communication sources. “We do the same thing in the U.S. Army,” Phillips explains. “Cellphones, anything they use to communicate with, the Iraqi security forces are taking away from them. It’s cutting them off from the world.”

Worse, says Phillips, the Iranians are likely waiting for all of the MEK leadership to be moved from Ashraf to Liberty before they start “disappearing” people. It was only a few days after the United States withdrew its protection at the end of July 2009 that Iraqi security forces killed 11 at Ashraf and wounded more than 500. In April 2011 the Iraqis attacked Ashraf again, killing 36 and wounding 345. 

Phillips believes that at Liberty, cut off from the rest of the world, it can only get worse for the MEK. “If I know Maliki, he’ll put them on buses and hand them over to the [Iranian] Qods Force.”

American credibility and prestige are on the line, says Phillips, not only in how we treat people under our protection but also in how we deal with Iran. “We’re afraid of sending the Iranians a strong message and getting them mad. But that’s exactly the message we want to send them.”

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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