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Lieutenant Colonel Leo McCloskey – I Lived With Ashraf Residents for 13 Months

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US Col. Leo McCloskey, JIATF Commander at Ashraf (2008)
US Col. Leo McCloskey, JIATF Commander at Ashraf (2008)

March 30, 2012 By

Lieutenant Colonel Leo McCloskey: March 24, 2012 Paris – Thank you.  Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; I’m not a professional speaker so I won’t probably be as good as everybody else here.  But I want to say one thing, that I am a citizen of Ashraf.  I know your children.  I know your brothers and your sisters, your father s and mothers.  Let us stand for them today.

Today I am also a former soldier.  During my 13 months in Ashraf I had the responsibility for the protection of the people of Ashraf.  That protection was granted to them under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and those people willingly accepted that protection from the U.S. after having given up their arms in their own protection, they trusted in the United States for their protection.  They did this in exchange for trust.  A trust that today we must still believe in.  A trust that still must be given to this world to make sure that these people are free and safe. 

In 2004 to 2008, approximately 300 decided to go back to Iran.  Very few were ever heard from again.  But I can tell you about one person that we did hear from again.  And that was Batoul Sultani, if you haven’t heard that name.  She was a resident of Ashraf who left and went back to Iran.  Within a month or two after she left, I got a frantic call in the middle of the night from one of our police stations outside of Ashraf saying that Ms. Sultani was back in Iraq with an Iranian passport.  And she told me a story through my interpreter that she had been brought back to Iran and was being forced to come back to Iraq because for protection of her family.  She said that she escaped from her captors in Baghdad, and then she wanted to come back to Camp Ashraf.  Well, shortly thereafter she did show up back at Ashraf, in protest, saying that her husband was being held captive by the people of Ashraf.  I personally interviewed her husband, as I have interviewed thousands of other people in Camp Ashraf, along with family members.   She was there at the behest of the Quds Force as an agent of the Iranian government.  I can tell you that the people of Ashraf are there because they want to be there.  [applause]

Like in some organizations, some people do want to leave, and people were allowed to leave by the leadership and by the residents of Ashraf.  They came to us with full faith that we would get them refugee status, and then they would go on with their life in other countries in Europe.  The UN came in and they vetted these people.  They listened to their stories.  They learned what countries they wanted to go to.  And we put them in a camp called the Ashraf Refugee Camp, with the intent that this would serve as an example if we could relocate these people to other places around the world, that that would then say to the residents of Ashraf, you don’t need to stay here anymore.  You can go any time.  And believing that this policy of graceful degradation would lead to the closure of Camp Ashraf.

Well, I can tell you one thing, those poor people sat in the Ashraf Refugee Camp for four years, with a lot of promises from the Red Cross, from the UN, all the other agencies.  And I sat and I watched European Union people come in, everybody promising to help and take the refugees from Ashraf.  I want to tell you that nobody voluntarily took the residents of Ashraf Refugee Camp.  It got so bad that the refugees in the camp wanted to be let free.  They had earned money while working at our camp and they had sufficient funds to be released.  I finally convinced our leadership to let them go, and we gradually started up with very small groups of them and we would open up the gates, they would take their personal belongings and they would leave the camp.  Many made their way into Turkey and several of them died trying to make their way to freedom.  We then decided to build a special refugee camp up in Duhok in Kurdistan.  The Kurdish government worked with us and the UN worked with us and we thought it was a great idea to do that and so we moved them up to Duhok.  And those people sat in hotels and before we could get them settled into the new refugee camp which we were going to build, the government of Erbil came and they took them away, with the blessing of UN.  And without our ability to really control the situation, they moved them into apartments in Erbil.  I do not know the fate of those people to this day.  But I do know and what I did hear was that the Quds Force wanted to have control of the former residents of Ashraf.  Now I tell you that story because it’s important to understand we need the world to help us here.  If we couldn’t get refugee status, if we couldn’t move people from a refugee camp into freedom in other counties how are we going to get the situation done here with the people that are in Ashraf now?  We need some help.

I want to tell you a little bit about the people that I lived with for 13 months.  People who I shared meals with.  People who I visited in their homes.  We guaranteed them that they wouldn’t be forcibly returned to Iran.  And during my 13 months working with the people of Ashraf, I made several observations.  One observation is they had a great relationship with the people in the villages around them.  And that relationship saved U.S. soldiers.  And I want to do a little side note here.  We lost 13 soldiers protecting the people of Ashraf.  There’s a dedication on the part of America that we made and we have another 20 soldiers that lost arms and legs.  And I have memories that will go on with me for the rest of my life of what it took to protect the people of Ashraf.  Why am I here today?  Because I take my responsibility seriously.  [applause]

These people in Ashraf they were very self-sufficient.  They could build everything.  They built manufacturing facilities.  They could do anything they wanted to do with only their hands and a few tools.  They paid for their own fuel, their food and their supplies.  The only thing we had to do was provide convoys back and forth to Baghdad so they could pick up their supplies.  When they had serious medical problems they would buy the right equipment.  At one point we had some people who were seriously ill in the camp and they needed a CAT scan.  The leadership worked out a way to get a CAT scan into Ashraf, but the Iraqi government wouldn’t let us bring it in there.  The people of Ashraf had their own hospital, well-maintained, and they took care of their own people.  They had educational facilities where people received college educations.  They maintained farms.  And I have one very special friend, my farmer friend, that I used to visit his gardens and I would eat of his food.  Their manufacturing facilities where they made the trailers, I’ve seen trailers in America, I’ve never seen as many well-produced products as what they made themselves in Iraq and they sold to take care of themselves.  They had tailor shops and computer labs.

They always expressed a desire to live in peace. They never demonstrated any desire to harm anybody in Iraq.  They also provided ongoing support to the local villagers by providing medical care.  And I can tell you one story shortly before I left.  We had a villager, little boy ten years old, a building fell on top of him.  In the end the people, the family came, Iraqi family, with this little boy in their arms.  And his head was very severely damaged.  And as a show of good faith the doctors at Ashraf came and we took him there to the hospital and they performed surgery and they saved that little boy.  I was there. [applause] The people of Iraq owe it to the people of Ashraf for what they did for the people surrounding them.  The people of Ashraf, besides the medical care, provided jobs.  There were no jobs in the area in Diyala province except in Ashraf.  And the local villagers made a living at Ashraf.  Again the Iraqi people owe the people of Ashraf.  Water.  We all take it for granted.  I have this bottle of water that I can drink today.  But if you were in the desert in Ashraf you would not see running water anywhere except in Camp Ashraf.  They took the water from the Tigris and the Euphrates and they pumped it for miles and miles and miles.  They built a filtration plant and they filtered the water.  And then they distributed it to all the villages around us.  [applause] The Iraqi government cannot even provide water for the refugees in Liberty.  [applause]

Bottom line here, the people of Ashraf are not terrorists.  They are people trying to be a symbol of courage, as you are in here.  They have willingly undergone years of isolation in a very difficult environment.  They have cooperated with the United States military, U.S. embassy, UNHCR, International Red Cross, the government of Iraq.  They have demonstrated that they’re willing to go to the extremes to help out the situation, as they’ve done now with the people that have moved to Liberty in the hope that by moving there they would find freedom.  But they’re not finding that.

Today the people of Ashraf are under attack.  The people who are now responsible for protecting them are not protecting them.  They have promised to leave the city to be moved to another place that would be safe.  As an addition they were being moved to Liberty.  As in the past the citizens did that in good faith and they have moved.  Only it’s not their home.  Ashraf was their home for 20, 25 years.  Moving them to a strange place is very difficult.  They do not have their own possession, the things that were comfortable around them in Ashraf. All that was stripped of them when they were moved to the conditions in Liberty.  Even though they’re very resourceful people, if you don’t give people the tools they can’t take care of themselves.  And that’s why Liberty is like a prison.  It does not have clean water.  It does not have proper sanitation.  It does not have constant electricity.  And it does not have freedom of movement.  You cannot put people in a cage and put police with guns and cameras around them 24 hours a day; you can’t invade their private space any time you feel like it and make them free people.  This is bad and it needs to be changed.

Why are the people of Ashraf being treated like this?  Is it because of a supposed military history?  And there is military history here.  I have been to Ashraf.  But that was a long time ago.  Is it because of the ties with Iran?  Hmm, where did Maliki live under Saddam?

So that makes it more, the more people they move into Liberty the more of a prison environment it is.  And I gotta tell you, what they have been doing in Ashraf is also a crime.  I have personal contact, phone contact on a regular basis with my friends in Ashraf.  I talk to them every month by phone.  And I get e-mails every day.  I know what happens.  I know about the invasions into all the space.  I know about the loudspeakers and how all night the torture is on them.  I saw the video that you saw here earlier right after it happened.  I know the people that were killed.  And what they did in Ashraf and what they continue to do in Ashraf is wrong.  Just as it’s wrong to move them into Liberty now.  [applause]

My time in Ashraf I worked with the UN.  Although they were afraid to come to Ashraf.  They called Ashraf Refugee Camp a UN refugee camp.  I didn’t see any UN in my camp.  They would not come.  They did it by video.  I did not see many Red Cross come into Ashraf until it was safe for them to come there.  Where are they now?  They are not in Ashraf.  They are not in Liberty.  They are outside Liberty.  They are not in Ashraf.  Where is the International Red Cross?  The people who were so willing to take and repatriate people back to Iran are not present and did not stay.  I tried to get them to put a base inside Ashraf before we left.  They wouldn’t do it.  Where is UNAMI or any of these other organizations that claim that they can help these people?  We need them to be present to help the situation.

When I lived in Ashraf I was adjacent to the city of Ashraf, and I frequently toured the city and spoke with the residents and visiting families.  I still have my notes about the children and the families of how they felt about their relatives over in Ashraf, and the torture that their families had endured because of their family members.  Everybody I spoke to in Ashraf said they were there because they wanted to be there.   I’ve had family members come to the gates and say, “My child is being held against her will.  Mustafa.”  And he stayed at that gate day after day.  And every time I would go in and I would talk to her, “You’re sure you want to stay here?” and she would say, “Yes.”  So the people of Ashraf are dedicated to staying in Ashraf until the solution is solved.

I have been asked by your leadership are the people of Ashraf a paramilitary organization?  And I say that’s a very complicated question.  In Ashraf the people during my time were in military uniforms.  And on days of celebration, like your religious holidays, they would parade in uniform.  Very, very beautiful parades with people.  But these people didn’t have weapons.  These people lived in dormitories, and yes the men and women live separately because that is part of your organization.  But all of the people had one desire, to stand up for your organization’s seeing the regime in Iran fall.  They are the symbol on the Iranian border. [applause] Ashraf, unlike the life you have here, you have nice clothes, you can drive down the street and shop in all the beautiful stores here, Ashraf is like a place left in time.  After the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, people of Ashraf did surrender and got protected persons status.  And they continued to live the same way they had lived.  They had military uniforms because that’s the only clothes they had.  They weren’t able to go to the shop and buy all new clothes.  They had to live with what they had.  To me, their lifestyle, their regimentation, was the only way they could survive.  Could you imagine being held or being in a camp 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a Iraqi army outside, Iraqi police ready to arrest you, the Quds force dropping rockets in on us at a regular basis?  You had to have some regimentation in order for that group to survive.  They’re heroes and they should be heroes to all of you.  [applause] Anybody that calls Ashraf today a paramilitary base, to me is very incendiary, and it demonstrates an insensitivity to the plight of the residents of Ashraf.

But what must we do to ensure the protection and relocation of the citizens of Ashraf?  As we all know, and have heard many times in the speeches today, there are approximately 1,200 residents that have been moved to Liberty. We know of one fatality so far.  The conditions of the camp are unbearable.  The Iraqi police have installed the cameras and they’ve got their police uniforms with their SWAT teams throughout the camp.  There is no clear plan by the Iraqi government to move them anywhere, even though Mrs. Rajavi has discussed moving them to Jordan, in the area of Jordan.  The Iraqi government is not willing to support this.  The residents no longer even have the tools to take care of themselves. Bottom line, Camp Liberty is a prison, it is not a refugee camp.

When the U.S. operated Ashraf Refugee Camp all were highly vetted by the UN but none could get asylum to other countries.  Is it likely now that the Iraqi government, under the conditions that they’re setting up, are going to be able to move these people to the Western countries?  My answer is it’s highly unlikely.  Therefore the move of the Ashraf residents to Liberty to me is the stupidest thing in the world.  Why not bring the UN to Ashraf?  Why move the people to Baghdad to put them in a prison?  Let the UN go to Ashraf.  But first we must get the State Department of the United States to take the MEK off the terrorist list.  [applause]

Second of all, the lack of movement by any of the residents  of Ashraf into Liberty has no bearing on whether or not they should be on the terrorist, the MEK should be on the terrorist list or not.  It’s a separate issue.  The UN has to establish a satellite office inside Liberty.  They must have an office also inside Ashraf to protect the people of Ashraf.  No additional movement should be done until some of these issues are settled.  Teams of human rights inspectors should also be present to make sure that the conditions that the people are living in are up to standards.  Thank you for your time. The citizens of Ashraf must be a priority for all of us in this room.  [applause]  Finally, the people of Ashraf have suffered enough.  Now is the time for them to be freed from their tasks that they have done for so many years.  I am willing to travel to Ashraf at any time.  [applause]

External Links

Two Misguided Reports

  • HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Report
    HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Report
    On 18 May 2005, the US based Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) issued a 28-page report (“the HRW Report”) concerning the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (“PMOI / MEK”).  Entitled ‘No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the MKO Camps’, the HRW Report was essentially based on 12 hours of telephone interviews with 12…
  • Courting Disaster, A response to Rand report on People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran
    Courting Disaster, A response to Rand report on People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran
    The RAND National Defense Research Institute published in July 2009 the report The Mujahedin-e Khalq: A Policy Conundrum for the Multi-National Force-Iraq, Task Force 134 (Detainee Operations). The report focuses on the circumstances surrounding the detention of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MeK) at Camp Ashraf and “whether MeK members were taken into custody…