Monday, August 31, 2009

Ashraf: from armed camp to haven, to trap

AN unusual demonstration has been taking place outside the American embassy, in Grosvenor Square. In the middle of London's prosperous Mayfair, a dozen determined Iranian men and women are now into the second month of their hunger strike. On Saturday evening, while most people were enjoying the bank holiday weekend, or celebrating football and Rugby League (or even GCSE) results, the hunger strikers were joined by about 150 supporters for a political rally.

Unlike the Cuban missile crisis when I first demonstrated at the embassy, 37 years ago, or the later Vietnam protests, the crowd I joined on Saturday were not demonstrating against US military action, but rather against failure to act.

Camp Ashraf , north-east of the Iraqi town of Khalia, and about 60 kilometres north of Baghdad, is home to refugees who came over the border from Iran. It is named after Ashraf Rajavi, a heroine who was a political prisoner of the Shah but met her death at the hands of the Islamic "Revolutionary Guard". Ashraf was a training base for the People's Mujihaddeen, or Mujihaddeen-e Khalq, who initially waged guerrilla war against the Shah's regime, but resumed it against the Ayatollah's Iran.

Many Iranian left-wingers disagreed with the Mujihaddeen-e Khalq, not only over its attempt to blend Islam with progressive ideas, or later claim to "Marxist-Leninism" but even more with its methods and alignments, which they say turned it against the people it claimed to represent. Bombings in Iranian cities killed innocent civilians. The camp at Ashraf was clearly under Saddam Hussein's patronage, and he was able to use the Mujihaddeen against Kurdish fighters and disssidents in Iraq.

According to the US State Department, the Mujihaddien were classed as a "terrorist" organisation, and although their political fronts were accepted in the United States, an FBI operation caught fundraisers who were accused of raising money for arms. But Mehrdad, one of the demonstrators I spoke to on Saturday assured me they ceased armed operations from 2001. "We are an opposition movement. We say it is only the Iranian people who can liberate Iran."

What is certain is that after the invasion of Iraq, the US government announced on April 22, 2003 that it had reached a ceasefire with the Mujahaddeen. The guerrillas claimed at first that they could carry on actions going into Iran, but in June 2003 the US Military Police took control of Camp Ashraf , and all weapons were to handed in. From September 2003, with Mujahaddeen fighters disarmed and detained for 'screening', Ashraf effectively became a refugee camp under US "protection".

Until January 1, this year, when it was announced that the US forces would no longer have responsibility for Ashraf, that the Iraqi government was in charge. With both Iranian refugees and Iraqi opposition concerned at this "independent", "democratic" government's dependence on undemocratic Iran, as well as Western backing, the disarmed people in Ashraf feared what might come.

The Iranian regime was keen to pin this Summer's post-election unrest on 'foreign agents' and "hooligans instigated by the Mujihaddeen-e Khalq.

On July 28, a large force of Iraqi troops and riot police were sent to Ashraf, to force their way in, ostensibly to set up a police post in the camp. On video shown at Saturday's demonstration, the soldiers seem a bit unsure and hesitant, confronted by a crowd of women. But soon they get their orders, and we see big riot clubs raining blows on people's heads. By the end of the day, eleven people were reportedly killed, and hundreds injured. Ashraf's food and water supplies were cut off. The Iraqi police took away 36 men from the camp. These men are still being held although a local Iraqi court said they should be released. There are fears the captives could be handed over to Iran.

As Mehrdad pointed out, besides the promises it made to the Ashrafis who surrendered their arms, the United States as an occupying power is responsible under the 4th Geneva Convention for the safety of the civilian population in the area it controls.

Passers by in Grosvenor Square who stopped, open-mouthed, at the scenes of violence on the screen, also paused to read the posters, which blamed Iraqi prime minister Nour al-Maliki responsible for the attack. They heard Lady Slim, a guest speaker, accuse the Iraqi authorities of acting on orders from Iran's supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had wanted as many prisoners as they could deliver. These might be taken to Iran, or used as hostages to bring pressure on the Mujihaddeen.

Lady Slim asked rhetorically whether this was why the American and British governments had gone to war in Iraq, and people had sacrificed their sons and daughters? . She called on the United States as an occupying power to exercise its responsibility to under article 45 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to protect the people of Ashraf, and obtain the release of the hostages.

John Cowan, Labour prospective candidate for South East Cambridgeshire, said he was urging the Foreign Secretary to make sure the British and US governents exercised their "legal and moral duty" to protect the people of Ashraf.

Whatever we think of the People's Mujihaddeen, or the way they have been used, we cannot accept the collective punishment of thousands of people, whether in Gaza or Iraq, nor can we be silent over the handing over of hostages to the regime in Iran.

Those of us who were against the invasiuon of Iraq and want the troops withdrawn are still entitled to demand that they carry out their obligations to the people while they are there. Those liberals and Labourites who argued that this was a "liberation", talk of "solidarity" without opposing the occupation, or say this is "not the time" to withdraw, have a duty to make demands of their governments and the "democracy" they established in Iraq. It would also help if the media did not leave it to to videos screened at street protests to let the people know what is going on in our name..

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