The role of the United Nations and the United States government in the bloody history of Camp Liberty
By Stes de Necker
Camp Ashraf forerunner to Camp Liberty
Camp Liberty is a former United States military installation in Baghdad, Iraq, now being used to house the members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI, also called MEK) who were forcibly evicted from Camp Ashraf.
Camp Ashraf or Ashraf City was a camp in Iraq’s Diyala province, having the character of a small city with all basic infrastructure, and headquarters of the exiled People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK). The population used to be around 3,400 in 2012 but nearly all have been more or less forcibly relocated under pressure by the premier minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office of the Government of Iraq to Camp Liberty near BIAP (Baghdad International Airport).
Camp Ashraf (aka US Forward Operating Base Grizzly) is situated 27.6 km northeast of the Iraqi town of Khalis, about 80 kilometers west of the Iran border and 40 kilometers north of Baghdad. Ashraf was created in 1986, after the PMOI leadership relocated from France to Iraq. It began as barren land with only a handful of deserted buildings and no facilities, paved roads, or running water. Over 25 years, however, Ashraf was built by its residents into a modern city with a complex of roads and buildings with many educational, social and sports facilities, and it became the PMOI’s main enclave in Iraq.
One remarkable characteristic of Ashraf was the presence of thousands of people who have freely chosen to come to Ashraf with only one goal and desire—to dedicate their lives to their people’s freedom from the clutches of the mullahs’ terrorist religious dictatorship.
Prior to the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq, the PMOI publicly declared its neutrality and played no part in the conflict. In the early part of the invasion, as a result of quid pro quo between Washington and Tehran, PMOI bases were repeatedly bombed by Coalition forces, inflicting dozens of casualties and enormous structural damage.
In April 2003, US forces signed a cease-fire agreement of “mutual understanding and coordination” with the PMOI. Finally in May 2003, as a result of negotiations between the PMOI and US forces led by General Ray Odierno, the PMOI agreed to a “voluntary consolidation” and disarming of its forces in exchange for US protection of Camp Ashraf and its residents.
After an extensive 16-month investigation of every member of the PMOI in Camp Ashraf by seven different US government agencies that began after the US agreement, PMOI members were found not to have violated any US law [New York Times, July 27, 2004]. In addition, the US Government declared them to have been “non-combatants” during the 2003 war.
In 2004 the US led Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I) formally recognized all the residents of Camp Ashraf as “Protected Persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention [Coalition Statement, July 2004], and U.S. forces took up their protection.
On 1 January 2009, despite strong opposition by the residents and several legal opinions by distinguished jurists, the camp’s security was transferred to Iraq without necessary credible guarantees. The US stated that the Government of Iraq has given written guarantee respecting the rights of the residents. For over 10 years, Camp Ashraf has been attacked several times, the worst being on April 8, 2011 when Iraqi security forces stormed the camp and killed as many as 36 and wounding 320 residents, and on September 1, 2013, leaving a death toll of 52 victims.
Relocation to Camp Liberty
Under strong pressure by the Iraqi government, whose declared will is to expel the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK) from Iraq, but who was aided as well by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) under the pretext to preserve their security, near all of the 3400 MEK residents of Camp Ashraf were forcedly moved to Camp Liberty in 2012.
Following an agreement between Ambassador Martin Kobler of UNAMI and the Government of Iraq, and at the behest of the Iranian regime, Ashraf residents were subject to a forced eviction and involuntary relocation to Camp Liberty, a former U.S.-base in Baghdad.
Martin Kobler, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Iraq, misled the residents and the international community by repeated assurances about the residents welfare and protection at the new site which has until now proved to be blatantly false.
In 2012, some 3,200 residents moved to Camp Liberty, but Iraq has denied them freedom of movement, basic humanitarian needs, and the right to transfer or sell most of their property.
The MEK is a political party was banned in Iran in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, which the government of its host country of Iraq still considers it to be a terrorist organization.
Establishment of Camp Liberty
Camp Liberty first came into existence during the 2003 invasion of Iraq as Camp Victory North, and was renamed (its Arabic translation is “Camp Al-Tahreer”) in mid-September 2004 to its later name of Camp Liberty (in Arabic “Camp Hurriya”).Other camps that made up the Victory Base Complex include Camp Victory (formerly known as Camp Victory South), Camp Striker, Seitz, and Camp Slayer. The renaming was part of an effort to give U.S. facilities around Baghdad friendlier connotations, and an attempt to resolve the issue of constantly changing facility names.
During the Iraq War, following the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, the base was a large coalition military installation located northeast of the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), becoming part of the U.S. military’s Victory Base Complex (VBC).
Camp Liberty was twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, and one of the largest U.S. overseas posts built since the Vietnam War.
Billions of American tax payer’s dollars were spent to establish this military installation. The camp was equipped with some of the most modern infrastructure equipment like electrical generators, water purification plants, medical facilities, dining halls, command centres and accommodation and ablution quarters.
A substantial amount was also spent on upgrading the infrastructure of the nearby airport used for air transport.
For all intense and purpose, Camp Liberty was now American territory.
Life in Camp Liberty after 2012
Martin Kobler, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Iraq (SRSG), gave the residents repeated assurances about their welfare and protection at the new site. But the Government of Iraq (GoI) has imposed a siege on the camp and denied them the right to transfer or sell most of their property.
In violation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Iraq and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Camp Liberty lacks human rights standards and is considered a prison from every aspect.
Residents have no freedom of movement, and Iraq has banned them from having access to their relatives, human rights activists, parliamentarians, reporters and any foreign visitor in Liberty or Ashraf.
This helped partly to convince the United States removing the MEK from its list of designated terrorist groups.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on 23 November 2012 described conditions at Camp Liberty as synonymous with that of a detention centre and in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and called on the Iraqi government for the “immediate release and lifting of all restraints upon the free movements of these persons”. This was the second opinion adopted by the Working Group detailing abuses at the camp.
Another opinion issued on 17 July 2012 found similar abuses taking place.
A rocket and mortar attack left at least eight dead and nearly 100 wounded occurred at Camp Hurriya on 9 February 2013.
Iranian residents of Camp Liberty and their representatives and lawyers appealed to the UN Secretary-General and U.S. officials to let them return to Ashraf, which they say is 80 times larger than Liberty and has concrete buildings and shelters that offer more protection. They argue that this move is all the more imperative because according to the UN Refugee Agency and the US embassy in Baghdad, resettlement will take anywhere from three to 10 years. So, the residents would be at risk of further attacks and the move to Ashraf would not hinder their resettlement.
On 29 April 2013, 20 explosions hit Camp Liberty/Camp Hurriya. Its residents accuse the Iraqi government of failing to offer adequate protection or medical care.
A deadly rocket attack occurred on 26 December 2013, killing four Iranian dissidents and wounding about seventy. This was the last of a total of four rocket attacks to Camp Liberty in 2013.
The destructive power of 26 December attack was particularly high, as in addition to previously used rockets, missiles hit the camp with had about 10 times explosive power. Iraqi authorities have repeatedly denied involvement in attacks on the group. However, in a rare claim of responsibility for attacks on the MEK, Wathiq al-Batat, commander of the al-Mukhtar Army militia, admitted his group had fired rockets at the camp. This army is a relatively new Shi’ite militia, which has said it is supported and funded by Iran. Batat is a former leader of the more well-known Kata’ib Hezbollah militia.
The UNHCR called on the government of Iraq to urgently scale up security measures in the camp to ensure the safety and security of its residents. UNHCR urgently reiterated the need to find solutions for the camp’s residents, and appealed to countries to find places for 1,400 persons from Camp Liberty that had been submitted for relocation since 2011, stating that only 311 residents were secured to third countries so far.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran informed and warned on activities in Iraq by Iranian Quds Force, led by Qasem Soleimani, aimed to massacre Camp Liberty residents via a joint operation with Iraqi forces. In August 2014, the Iraqi government started to block food, fuel and water supplies.
Former UNAMI chief Ad Melkert, who, in fall 2009, had strived to find a mediated solution for residents to remain protected in their original home city Camp Ashraf, appealed to UNAMI to hold the Iraqi government accountable for creating the descent conditions in Liberty and for blockading the delivery of daily life essentials.
In October 2014, the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe reiterated its concern over the situation, namely over a recent statement of the Iraqi Minister of Justice, in which he said that if Iran asked for the extradition of the residents of Camp Liberty, Iraq would deliver them.
As per December 2014, UNHCR informed that it has been working since February 2012 to identify “individuals with international protection needs” and to find solutions outside Iraq for the remaining population of still 2,746 individuals.
On 30 January 2015, 100 Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in a written declaration urged Europe, USA, and UN that “Camp Liberty, home to Iranian exiles in Iraq, be recognized as refugee camp under supervision of UNHCR and specially medical and fuel siege be ended.”
Instead of designating Camp Liberty as a refugee camp, the camp has been illegally designated a “temporary transit location – TTL” to cover up the appalling lack of minimum standards for a refugee camp and violation of laws and regulations related to refugees and asylum seekers. The term TTL applies to a camp which has a several-day or several-week passage for transferring refugees to third countries.
Latest Rocket Attack on Camp Liberty
On the evening of 29th October 2015, another heavy rocket attack killed more than 20 residents in the camp. As with regard to many past attacks to Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf, evidence points to Iran paramilitary forces being the perpetrators.
“This was a horrific act of violence against the residents of Camp Liberty, which cannot simply be ignored by the Iraqi authorities. They must ensure a prompt, independent and effective investigation into this attack and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Their utter failure to investigate previous deadly attacks against the camp sends the message that its residents can be murdered with impunity.”
Eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that the attack started around 7.40 pm local time as camp residents were gathering for dinner. Twenty people were killed instantly while another four later died from injuries in a Baghdad hospital.
Residents said around 80 rockets hit the camp, which they identified as Iranian built Falaq Katyusha rockets, though Iraqi media reported that between 12 and 38 rockets were fired.
The attack caused widespread destruction as it hit the camp’s electricity generators while hundreds of residents have been left homeless. The damages inflicted on PMOI properties at Camp Liberty because of the missile attack last night has been estimated at over $10 million.
This includes 131 trailers completely destroyed and 226 rendered unusable. Ten dining halls have been totally devastated or can no longer be used. 275 air conditioners have also been demolished
The Iraqi government has yet to make a statement on the events, but other governments as well as the UN Refugee Agency – which considers Camp Liberty residents “people of concern” – have condemned the attack.
The Iraqi authorities’ silence about the killing of 24 people is inexcusable. They are manifestly failing in their duty under international law to protect everyone in the camp, many of whom are asylum-seekers. On top of the loss of life, the destruction caused by the attack has left many residents facing desperate conditions. The Iraq government must urgently ensure that electricity and water are restored, and that those whose homes have been destroyed are provided with adequate temporary shelter without delay.
UNHCR strongly condemned the attacks and stated that the residents are entitled to protection against expulsion or forced movement to any place where their lives or freedom would be threatened, and informed that it has supported the relocation of more than 900 residents to safe third countries since 2011; as however, approximately 2,160 people still remain, UNHCR renewed its calls upon governments of other countries to find ways to offer long term solutions.
The European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA), led by Struan Stevenson, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq from 2009 to 2014, who was deeply involved in diplomacy aiming to safeguard the lives and human rights of the residents of Camp Ashraf, stated that to avoid further bloodshed just condemning the atrocity is not enough.
EIFA urged the USA to provide air cover for Camp Liberty, the UN to “stop any further obfuscation and officially recognize Camp Liberty as a refugee camp under its direct supervision and protection” and asked that the “international assistance to Iraq must be suspended forthwith until the security of the Camp Liberty residents is assured”.
Since the 29 October 2015 missile attack on Camp liberty and notwithstanding the international condemnation by a host of politicians and other role players in the Western World, the Iraqi Government, in a clear show of contemptuous defiance of the feelings and opinions of the West, has intensified the blockade imposed on the camp and prevented the delivery of basic daily necessities.
Fuel and sewage discharge trucks, along with machinery needed to clean up the remaining debris after the attack and supplies necessary for repairing damaged trailers, various equipment and appliances were blocked from entering the Camp in a blatant attempt to seriously harm the survivors of the missile attack.
What the American people are not told
As mentioned earlier, Camp Liberty was established as a military base during the Gulf War and was officially recognized as American territory.
After the Obama administration withdrew the American forces from Iraq in 2011, Camp Liberty and the Iranian refugees were left behind, unprotected and uncared for.
Not only were the refugees left to fend for themselves, but the entire multi-billion dollar military installation was abandoned without taking any further responsibility for the Camp and its residents.
Assets worth billions of American tax payers’ money and 3000 helpless Iranian refugees, sympathetic to the American cause, were left abandoned and unprotected.
Not to mention the legal agreements with the residents that was simply just walked away from; ignored and dishonoured.
This disgraceful act of dishonesty will remain a stain on America’s good name until the US Government has corrected this atrocity.