By Tahar Boumedra
Tahar Boumedra as Chief of the Human Rights Office of United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and Adviser to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Camp Ashraf related issues from 2009 until 2012, tried to prevent an Iraqi attack against unarmed civilians of Ashraf that massacred 36 residents five years ago on 8 April 2011. His revealing accounts from the attack are extracted from his book "The Untold Story of Ashraf" Published by New Generation Publishing in 2013.
The Ashrafis informed me on 3 April that they were told the Iraqi 3rd Battalion of the 21st Brigade of the 9th Division is going to be replaced by a battalion from Iraq's 5th Division. On 4 April, I was told by the Ashrafis that forces of the Iraqi 5th Division had entered Ashraf with 30 BMP1, armoured personnel carriers and HUMVEEs and taken up positions around Ashraf. Instead of replacing the 9th Division, it seemed the new force was in fact reinforcing the existing battalion which remained in place. The Ashrafis feared a bloodbath awaits them.
On the afternoon of 7 April, convoys of Iraqi forces arrived at Ashraf including a number of engineering vehicles. In the evening, I received information that the USF-I contingent based in FOB Warhorse, which would move every day to the proximity of ex-FOB Grizzly on monitoring missions, had left. The residents raised the alarm about unusual movement of the Iraq Army around the Camp and a number of senior Iraqi officers, including Lt. General Ali Gheidan, the Commander of the Iraqi Infantry Army; Lft. General Tariq al-Azzawi, commander of Operations of the Diyala province and an officer known as General Zia, Commander of the 5th Division had gathered at Ashraf.
By now, I was receiving calls from Ashraf nearly every half an hour updating me on the movement of the Iraqi army. When it became clear that an attack was imminent, I picked up the phone to raise the alarm. It was Thursday, the beginning of the Iraqi weekend. The US Embassy and the USF-I/UNAMI coordinator were not reachable. At the British Embassy, which accommodates the EU Delegation and a number of EU member states’ Embassies, there was a party going on. I called my counterpart at the EU delegation to raise the alarm. I was told that a high ranking Iraqi military officer was at the party and was reassuring party goers that nothing untoward would happen. I called Haqqi and Sadiq. Their phones were turned off. I knew MILAD had access to the USF-I through secured lines, so I called the UNAMI military advisor, Lt Col Ronald Laden, and asked him to contact the USF-I to verify the information I was receiving from Ashraf. Even on the secure line, there was no reply. At 11pm I decided to rest briefly when Behzad called to say the Iraqi army was removing the fence on the north side of the Camp. In the absence of any authority I could contact in Baghdad, and in order to alert the international community, I called an MEP in Brussels to let him know that the fence around Ashraf had been removed and an attack was imminent. I also called a few numbers in Geneva, New York and Washington. Unfortunately, by now, most people on the American east coast had already left work.
At 4:45 am on Friday, 8 April, Behzad was on the line again. This time he told me the attack has begun. The Iraqi Army was moving in, using mechanized infantry, engineering, rapid deployment and anti-riot forces. A few minutes later, the phone rang with the news that two residents had been killed. By 5am the number of casualties had reached 12 dead and numerous injured. The 7am update reported 16 dead.
With SRSG Melkert out of Iraq, I called DSRSG Skuratowicz as the designated officer (DO). In order to end the violence, we agreed to take the extraordinary step of going to the home of Faleh al- Fayadh, the NSA. Contacting Iraqi government officials on ordinary days was a challenge let alone on a Friday morning. By the time we arrived at his house it was 9am and the number of the dead had reached 22. We asked him to stop the attack immediately if he wanted to save life and save the image of the Iraqi army and, indeed, that of the country. An attack on unarmed protected persons by three battalions of the Iraqi security forces was unacceptable. Al-Fayadh’s response was to tell us that we had merely been alarmed by false rumors. I pulled out my mobile phone and asked him to speak to people on the ground to hear for himself what was happening. Instead, he made his own call. I guessed that he called his lieutenants, Haqqi and Sadiq. Al- Fayadh then reiterated that nothing had happened save a minor incident in which three residents had thrown themselves on some vehicles. The three were being cared for at Ba’qubah hospital. I requested authorization to visit Ashraf that day. NSA al- Fayadh turned down the request on the pretext that my weekly visit took place on a Wednesday, and that another visit in the same week was not necessary. The DSRSG insisted that it was important that UNAMI was seen on the ground. It would be an assurance to the international community that nothing had in fact happened. NSA al-Fayadh said he would consult and let us know.
By the end of the day, Friday, 8 April, the cumulative reports I had received from the residents indicated that General Ali Gheidan was personally present at the scene supervising the operation. In its move into Ashraf, the Iraqi army used sound and smoke grenades and teargas. When the residents gathered to create a human barricade in the face of the advancing forces, the army opened fire at them. Snipers were used to hunt camerawomen who were filming the attack and HUMVEEs were driven at high speed into crowds of residents.
The attack stopped on the Friday evening. The Iraqi Army had taken the north side of 100th Street running across Ashraf from west to east. The residents had been pushed south of 100th Street. Almost one third of the Camp was now occupied by the Iraqi Army. Most buildings in the occupied area had been flattened and their content vandalized or looted. There were 28 dead.
The US Embassy outlined the US government 'dilemma' in the event of an Iraqi attack on Ashraf in a cable: “In order to break up the cult-like nature of the organization, the GOI is threatening to separate the leaders of the organization from the rank and file. Unless done over time and according to careful preparation and planning, this act (or the decision to seek to arrest the leaders) will cause a humanitarian crisis. If the GOI acts harshly against the MEK and provokes a reaction (or the MEK provokes the Iraqi Security Forces), the USG faces a challenging dilemma: we either protect members of a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) against actions of the ISF and risk violating the US-Iraq Security Agreement, or we decline to protect the MEK in the face of a humanitarian crisis, thus leading to international condemnation of both the USG and the GOI.” (See “US government outlines 'dilemma' in event of Iraqi crackdown on Iranian dissidents”, US embassy cables published by The Guardian, 8 April 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/08/us-iraq-iranian- dissidents-mek)
It was in the face of this dilemma that the order was given to the USF-I force unofficially stationed outside Ashraf to leave the scene on 7 April to avoid them witnessing people being killed without being able to intervene. Once the dust had settled at Ashraf, the USF-I discreetly negotiated the dispatch of a medical team, which entered Ashraf on the 10 April. Thus, a dozen of residents identified with life threatening injuries were transferred to the USF-I military hospital in Balad. UNAMI only found out about the USF-I medical mission three days later during its fact-finding visit.
Although NSA al-Fayadh never did come back to us on the requested authorization to visit Ashraf, Wednesday, 13 April 2011 was the normal UNAMI scheduled weekly visit to Ashraf and the GoI could not prevent it from taking place. I went with a delegation comprising: Daniel Augstenberg, UNAMI Chief of the Department of Humanitarian Services; Dr Bernhard Lennartz, Chief of the UNAMI Medical Section; Despina Saraliotou, Office of Political and Constitutional Affairs; Bikem Ekberzade, UNAMI Photographer, Public Information Office; Col. Bryndol Sones, USF-I/UNAMI Coordinator; Lt. Col. Ronald Laden, MILAD; and the USF-I escort platoon.
We were usually received by the Commander of the battalion, Lt. Col. Latif in person; on this occasion, we were met by junior Iraqi army officers. They verified that all members of the delegation were UNAMI staff. Members of the diplomatic missions were not permitted to enter Ashraf. We were then escorted to the hospital. On the way, we took photographs of the scene. The fence protecting the north and west sides of the camp was completely removed, the land was flattened, buildings demolished and a berm of about six km erected along 100th Street. As had been earlier promised by the Iranian Ambassador, the loudspeakers were silenced for our visit. At the hospital, I asked the Iraqi Doctor, Umar Khalid, face-to-face, to tell the delegation what he had witnessed and the number of casualties he had received. He stated that only three people had been killed, although prior to the events, he said, he had “anticipated the worse and had prepared his staff and the hospital” for any eventuality.
As there was not a single patient on the premises, the delegation left the hospital without any information of substance, except the statement of Dr Khalid which inadvertently reinforced the suggestion that the attack was premeditated. We moved into the Camp to speak to the residents and their representatives. We were taken to a location east of the Camp near Tulip Square as the usual meeting centre in Tuloo Building in the west, near the Lions’ Gate, was judged unsafe. Five BMPs (Russian tracked infantry fighting vehicles) were placed a few yards behind the building with their cannons directed towards it.
We were first taken to what seemed to be a makeshift clinic, a residential dwelling crammed with hospital beds. I visited every casualty. The Ashrafis’ own doctor explained the state of health of each patient using x-ray images to show the bullets and shrapnel in each body. He explained how some of the injured were run over by HUMVEEs. A USF-I medical team, had already done the triage of the casualties on its visit of 10-12 April, and transferred the critical cases to the USF-I Hospital in Balad. Others were transferred by the Iraqis on the day of the attack to Ba’qubah Hospital. My delegation counted 72 injured in the makeshift clinic.
Outside the clinic, relatives of the deceased stood holding photographs of their loved ones, calling on UNAMI to protect the living. Among them was a 14 year-old girl who had lost her sister during the attack. She spoke emotionally and very eloquently about how the residents were left to be slaughtered without any organization coming to their aid.
The delegation was then split into two teams. The first team, lead by Dr. Bernhard Lennartz (a UNAMI physician), together with Ms Bikem Ekberzade, PIO Photographer, Col. Bryndol Sones (USF-I) and Lt. Col. Ronald Laden, UNAMI/MILAD, went to do the body count and to take pictures. The second team, comprising Daniel Augstburger, Despina Saraliotou and I, went to hear from the Camp’s leadership.
Ms Mojgan Parsaei described the sequence of events on 7 and 8 April when the Iraqi Generals came to Ashraf and forces from Diyala joined the battalion on the ground before the attack was launched at 04.45 am. Ms Parsaei expressed certainty that among the soldiers were Iranian agents and snipers recruited to execute residents since most of the dead were killed by single bullets to the head or to the heart. She said they were heard speaking in perfect Farsi as they cursed the residents. She informed us that the army has taken the northern part of the camp, demolished some buildings and blocked access to some vital areas such as the fuel storage facility. She confirmed that the attack lasted approximately seven hours. Some 318 were injured and 34 killed. Forty- four wounded had been taken to Ba’qubah hospital while four had been transferred to Baghdad. Of those transferred to Ba’qubah, six had been discharged and had been taken to a detention centre in al-Khalis, (the six were visited by the ICRC on 12 April and were subsequently released and returned to the Camp on 14 April). She deplored the lack of appropriate medical assistance that lead to the deaths of some of the injured in Ba’qubah hospital.
Back in Baghdad, I sat down with the team to assess the events. I noted: the indifference of the diplomatic community, at least on the eve of the attack; NSA Faleh al-Fayadh having denied that anything had happened while refusing to authorise my mission to Ashraf; and the USF-I covert dispatch of a medical team to Ashraf on 10 April. I noted that the Iraqi doctor’s assurance to me that there were only three dead while 28 bodies and 72 casualties lay at a short distance from him. All this confirmed previous speculation about Iraqi intentions towards Camp Ashraf. The GoI spokesperson, Ali al-Dabbagh, had declared that the Prime Minister had vowed to close down Camp Ashraf by “all means”; he had indeed begun to do just that. The northern half of the Camp has been taken. Property had been looted, including the Camp’s vehicles. Access to the generators providing electricity had been impeded and the provision of food had not been allowed for the past 15 days. These measures were further indicators that the PM’s Office was determined to close the Camp by “all means” regardless of the humanitarian consequences.
Prime Minister al-Maleki expected the criticism of the international community, thus, some diplomatic action is not excluded from his agenda. While discussions on finding a solution might be taking place with different international interlocutors, recurrence of events like those on 7-8 April should not be excluded and could be used as an additional wake-up call to the international community to expedite negotiations for immediate removal of the residents. The Iraqis seem to be determined to close the camp within the deadline set by the Prime Minister, i.e. end of the year 2011. Human Rights and humanitarian concerns had become tactically part of the Iraqi government's rhetoric, what happens on the ground was completely different.
On 14 April, I called Dr Hamid K. Ahmed, Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister’s Office and requested an urgent meeting with those in charge of the Ashraf file. He responded promptly and positively. We met the same day at the PM’s office. Present on his side were: NSA Faleh al-Fayadh; Political Advisor to the PM, Georges Y. Bakoos; and Haqqi Karim and Sadiq Mohammad Kazim, Security Officers of the PM’s Office. I was accompanied by Despina Saraliotou from UNAMI’s Office of Political and Constitutional Affairs as well as Ambassador Lawrence Butler, Foreign Policy Adviser to the Commander, USF-I. The meeting was chaired by the Chief of Staff, Dr Hamid Ahmed.
Dr Hamed began by praising the existing cooperation between UNAMI and the GoI, reiterating the GoI commitment to uphold human rights and humanitarian standards at Camp Ashraf. NSA al- Fayadh spoke about the urgent necessity of finding a durable solution within the timeframe set by the Prime Minister. None on the Iraqi side mentioned the 8 April attack. I told the meeting about my fact- finding mission the previous day. My team had done the body count and recorded 28 dead and 72 injured at the Camp. Other casualties were to be found at hospitals elsewhere. Dr Hamid Ahmad and Georges Bakoos were visibly shocked. The others kept silent looking down at their notebooks, avoiding eye contact with me. NSA al-Fayadh persisted in denying the attack had taken place at all. I had to offer them my pen drive with the pictures of the dead. Of course they declined to look, knowing what had happened better than I did. On behalf of the UN, I requested an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the case and to hold those responsible to account. Ambassador Butler supported my request. Al-Fayadh, his irritation obvious, replied nervously that the inquiry was a matter for Iraq; “No one will dictate to us how to do an inquiry”.
United Nations' Response to the Second Attack
What happened in Ashraf on 7-8 April 2011, in my assessment, was premeditated extra-judicial killing. That it was planned could be evidenced by the following facts: the GoI’s rhetoric before the attack; the movement of different forces of Iraqi Army the preceding week; the presence on the ground of three generals and the same officers responsible for the 28/29 July 2009 attack; the presence of snipers as evidenced in video clips provided by the residents; the large number of victims shot with a single bullet to the chest or to the head; the use of hollow point ammunition; and the lack of credible reporting of any Iraqi casualties. Having despatched a fact-finding mission, which had confirmed the attack and the casualties, the UN should have unreservedly condemned the attack. However, UNAMI was not prepared to put its very existence in Iraq in jeopardy. It is worth recalling at this point the SRSG’s statement at the meeting held with the diplomatic community on 3 October 2009; “UNAMI has a huge agenda with the GoI and does not want to have one issue jeopardize all”. Thus, UNAMI’s statement on the issue, dated16 April 2011, merely noted “the initiative of the GoI to establish a commission of inquiry” and UNAMI’s expectation that such a commission “be independent” and to start its work “without delay”.
Knowing that UNAMI was not going to condemn the attack on Ashraf, I decided to share the report of the fact-finding mission with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights outside of the regular reporting procedure. With the report and pictures of the dead in Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, had to “condemn the lethal Iraqi military operation”. She said “The Iraqi military were well aware of the risks attached to launching an operation like this in Ashraf... There is no possible excuse for this number of casualties. There must be a full, independent and transparent inquiry, and any person found responsible for use of excessive force should be prosecuted”.
As usual, the UN did not follow up on this call for an independent investigation. The reality was that UN decision-makers had other priorities in Iraq. In the case of the Mujahedin e-Khalq, the UN, at different levels of management was misinformed, misled or, as events will reveal, was intentionally keeping quiet for a mixture of personal interests and political expediency. In terms of political expediency, it should be underlined that the United Nations is not taking into account that UN agencies and programmes had an agenda in Iraq that will outlive the presence of UNAMI. At the same time al- Maleki’s government was not necessarily going to outlive UNAMI, and this reality was not factored into the UN's throwing its weight behind him.
Outside of the UN system, the individual governments of the coalition expressed indignation but kept silent on the issue of investigation. They too had their own agendas and interests. They had an eye on the Iraqi post-conflict reconstruction cake. Al- Maleki’s Office has the upper hand in awarding projects and no government was prepared, for the sake of a “bunch of presumed terrorists”, to lose its place in a very promising market. There was however universal condemnation of the attack from parliamentarians and civil society.