Iraqi security forces from the Ministry of the Interior raided Camp Ashraf, the stronghold of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) terrorist cult in eastern Iraq, on Tuesday, killing at least four MEK members, wounding 21, and arresting 28. The terrorist group has been attempting to destabilize Iran through bombings and assassinations for decades and was given a base in Diyala province near Iran by Saddam Hussein for the purpose of spying on and harrying the clerical regime.
Although the State Department declared the group a terrorist organization, the US military continued to support the MEK in Iraq and is alleged to have deployed them for intelligence and perhaps operational purposes, over the objection of the Shiite government in Baghdad.
Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that the Iraqi police had demanded from the 3000 residents of Camp Ashraf that they allow the erection in the camp of Iraqi police checkpoints. The MEK refused. An elite anti-terrorist force from Baghdad then entered the camp and faced resistance from the MEK in the form of attacks with bare fists. (The US military disarmed the group several years ago). The security forces used tear gas to disperse them.
Now that US troops have ceased their independent patrols in Iraqi cities, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has decided to move against the group. The Ministry of the Interior security forces are alleged to have been deeply infiltrated by the Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading party in parliament and ally of al-Maliki that was formed in Iran by Iraqi expatriates under the auspices of Ayatollah Khomeini. Badr in turn was from the 1980s through 2003 essentially a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Likely the victory of the hard liners and the IRGC in Iran’s struggle over the outcome of the June 12 presidential election has put them in a strong position to ask their Iraqi counterparts and former colleagues to move against the MEK.
The UN has instructed Iraq not to return the MEK members to Iran, where they would face torture and possibly summary execution, and what to do with the camp inmates is as controversial for Iraq as what to do with the Guantanamo prisoners is in the US. Al-Zaman says that the MEK members say they would be willing to return to Iran if they are given full immunity from prosecution, imprisonment and torture. Since this development is unlikely, I suppose they will end up in some other country.
You will note that not a single high Iraqi Shiite official condemned the hard liners’ tactics in Iran during the past month, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq made pretty clear its support for the hard liners. IRNA reported on June 15, “Head of Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, too, forwarded a message of congratulations to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on holding fair presidential elections during which Ahmadinejad was re-elected as Iran’s President.” It was because of a similar message to Tehran from Moscow that the reformists in Iran have been chanting “death to Russia.”
You will remember that a little over two years ago, the US military arrested Ammar al-Hakim, now the de facto leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, as he returned from consultations in Iran across the Iraqi border without going through passport control. It was alleged at the time that Ammar’s secret trips to Iran were revealed to the US by MEK spies.
Payback, as they say, is a female dog.
This little incident at Camp Ashraf is like a magnitude 4.5 earthquake in California, something that locals would hardly notice but which indicates that a big fault in the earth is on the move. The Iranian Right has strengthened its position in the Middle East, and the US Right has seen its weaken. Thus, the proteges of the Neoconservatives and the Pentagon hawks are now increasingly in an impossible situation in Iraq and clearly will have to leave. They cannot carry out their espionage and sabotage in the face of opposition from the increasingly powerful Shiite government in Baghdad, which is in turn closely allied with Iran’s hard liners.
Gunmen, presumably guerrillas, pulled off a bloody bank heist in the tony Shiite district of Karrada in Baghdad on Tuesday morning, killing 8 guards and making off with $6.5 million. Some observers are wondering if the robbery indicates that the remaining guerrillas opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are running out of money. (That conclusion would suggest that the private Gulf millionaires who are alleged to have sent contributions to the Sunni cause have lost interest or gone bankrupt, and that the remnants of the Iraqi Sunni Arab elite have either lost most of their wealth or given up spending it on insurgency).
Meanwhile, Iraq’s other big neighbor, Turkey is also pressuring Baghdad to move against a terrorist camp, this time that of the Kurdish Workers Party on the Iraqi border with Turkey, which has been more or less under the protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga paramilitary. PM al-Maliki is spoiling for a fight with the Peshmerga anyway, since he considers them an expansionist threat to Iraq’s unity. But if Baghdad really did move militarily against the PKK in alliance with Ankara, it could spark major conflict with Iraq’s own Kurds. Here again, the US Right is partially responsible for the terrorist havens on the Iraqi side of the border, since the US military had needed Kurdish support to remain in and to succeed in Iraq and could not afford to acquiesce in Turkish demands that the PKK be expelled. Now that the US troops are increasingly confined to base, Turkey is beginning to throw its weight around with Baghdad. In the end, it is Middle Eastern regional powers that will fill the vacuum that the US and Britain are leaving behind.
Behind the scenes, as Bloomberg implies, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on his surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday was no doubt working behind the scenes in an attempt to head off an Arab-Kurdish conflagration. The question is whether the US is still influential enough in Iraq to accomplish that goal. (In some ways, Iran is better placed to urge reconciliation, since it has long been a supporter of important Kurdish factions and is also close to the Shiite government of al-Maliki).
Speaking of leaving behind. The Iraqi Parliament either rejected or just did not get around to granting authorization for 100 British military personnel to remain in Iraq after July 31. As a result, the remaining British troops are relocating to Kuwait for lack of a valid legal framework for them to remain in Iraq. Although the British are saying that the glitch is temporary, I doubt the parliament will have any new sessions until well into September, after Ramadan, and it is not clear whether the MPs were dragging their feet or Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki just did not have the votes to get the authorization. The upshot is that the US military is now in Iraq all by itself, and George W. Bush’s infamous ‘coalition of the willing’ (note, not ‘coalition of the authorized by international law’) has finally evaporated.
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