U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iranian commandos took part in a deadly attack on a compound of dissidents inside Iraq and then spirited seven members of the group back to Iran, highlighting Tehran's increasingly free hand inside Iraq in the wake of the U.S withdrawal from the country.
The Sept. 1 attack on a base called Camp Ashraf killed at least 50 members of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, which had disarmed at the request of the U.S. military after the American invasion of Iraq and received explicit promises of protection from senior commanders. Instead, gory videos released by the group showed that many of its members had been shot with their hands tied behind their backs or in one of the camp's makeshift hospitals. MEK leaders, backed by an array of U.S. lawmakers, said Iraqi security forces carried out the attack.
Baghdad has long denied the charge, and U.S. officials have now concluded that a small number of Iranian paramilitaries from its feared Islamic Revolution Guards Corps helped plan and direct the assault on the camp. Three officials, speaking to Foreign Policy for the first time, said gunmen from two of Tehran's Iraqi-based proxies, Kitab Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, then carried out the actual attack. The Iranian involvement in the Ashraf massacre hasn't been reported before.
"Iraqi soldiers didn't get in the way of what was happening at Ashraf, but they didn't do the shooting," a U.S. official briefed on the intelligence community's assessment of the attack said in an interview. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
U.S. officials say that Iran's role in the attack didn't end with the killings of the MEK members at Ashraf. Instead, officials believe that Iranian commandos and fighters from the country's Iraqi proxies also abducted seven MEK members and smuggled them back to Iran. The missing MEK supporters haven't been seen or heard from since the attack.
Direct Iranian involvement in the Ashraf assault is one of the clearest signs yet of Tehran's growing power within Iraq, a dynamic of deep concern to American policymakers. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government has long maintained close ties with top Iranian leaders, and U.S. officials believe that Tehran prodded Maliki to refuse to sign a bilateral security pact in the fall of 2010 that would have kept some U.S. troops in the country. Perhaps under Iran's influence, Maliki has alienated Iraq's sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities by centralizing power in Baghdad and refusing to share power or fairly divvy up the country's oil revenues.
The timing of the attack also raises questions about whether Iran's security services are as committed to finding a rapprochement with Washington as its civilian government appears to be. The assault took place in September, several months after negotiators from the two governments had begun secret nuclear talks in Oman that ultimately led to last month's landmark nuclear pact between the Obama administration and the government of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. The deadly attack on a U.S.-allied group inside Iraq suggests that at least some elements within Tehran are willing to take steps that risk upsetting that fragile equilibrium.
MEK leaders in Washington strongly disagree with the U.S. conclusions about the Ashraf attack. They point out that the facility is guarded by fences, checkpoints and more than 1,200 Iraqi troops, making it extremely difficult for gunmen to reach the camp without, at a minimum, the active cooperation of Iraqi forces. They also note that survivors said the masked gunmen spoke Arabic and argue that the group's own operatives within Iran would know if the seven missing members had been brought into the country. They believe that Tehran ordered the attack, but say that it was carried out by Iraqi soldiers loyal to Maliki.
"The repeated statements by U.S. officials that Iraq has had no role in the September 1 massacre at Ashraf are only designed to exonerate the Iraqi prime minister and his senior officials from any responsibility in this manifest case of crime against humanity and to help him elude justice," Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the National Council of Iran Resistance, said in a written statement.
U.S. officials, for their part, say that the Iranian commandos could have used Arabic to mask their identities or stayed just outside the camp while the Iraqi gunmen carried out the assault. They also say at the missing MEK members might have been executed shortly after being brought into Iran or imprisoned in secret facilities for interrogation.
The Obama administration has largely declined to publicly address Iranian involvement in the Ashraf attack. During a contentious hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said he couldn't respond to a question about the missing MEK members in an open, unclassified session.
Still, other senior officials have provided hints about their whereabouts. At a sparsely-attended congressional hearing in mid-November, Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, told lawmakers that the seven MEK members "are not in Iraq."
McGurk told the lawmakers that the remaining 2,900 MEK members in Iraq wouldn't be safe until they could be brought out of the country and resettled elsewhere.
"The Iraqi government needs to do everything possible to keep those people safe, but they will never be safe until they're out of Iraq," McGurk said at the time. "And we all need to work together -- the MEK, us, the committee, everybody, the international community -- to find a place for them to go."
Tehran's antipathy towards the MEK isn't surprising. The group has spent years publicly decrying the Iranian government and telling lawmakers that it has broad support within Iran and could help turn the country into a democracy. It has also revealed key details about the country's nuclear program. In response, Iranian-backed forces inside Iraq have frequently targeted the group. In February, six of its members were killed and dozens were wounded when mortar shells landed at an MEK refugee camp on the grounds of a former U.S. base called Camp Liberty. A Hezbollah affiliate claimed responsibility.
Outgunned in Iraq, the MEK has tried to score points in the Washington influence game. It has enlisted former members of the military and both the Bush and Obama administrations as public advocates and unofficial lobbyists. The State Department designated it as a "foreign terrorist organization" in 1997, but removed the listing in September 2012 after strong pressure from MEK supporters like retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, Obama's first national security advisor, and former Attorney General Mike Mukasey. Most of the MEK's most prominent backers are paid for making public appearances on the group's behalf, but they also do pro bono work for the organization and say they genuinely believe in its cause.
The group also enjoys strong support on Capitol Hill. In the weeks after the Ashraf assault, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch MEK supporter, told Wendy Sherman, the No. 3 official at the State Department, that he would suspend U.S. weapons sales to Iraq until Maliki's government did more to protect the MEK members still in the country.
The Obama administration, for its part, says the MEK's members will only be safe once they've left Iraq. It's not clear, however, if or when other countries will step forward and announce a willingness to accept them.
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