Most Americans — even journalists — spent this July 4 with their families, enjoying the outdoors, grilling and watching fireworks displays. That’s probably why so few people heard about the rocket attack on a small camp in Iraq, housing over 1,000 Iranians. Ironically, the camp is called “Camp Liberty.”
Although the underreported attack left 50 people wounded, several key politicians took notice and have responded.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) condemned the attack in a statement. “Sadly, this is not the first time the residents of Camp Liberty have been the victims of horrific attacks,” McCain said. “And I remain deeply concerned about their safety. While I am pleased by the State Department’s effort to expedite the residents’ resettlement to a safe location, this latest attack demonstrates the need for the United States and Iraq to do more to ensure the security of Camp Liberty during this process.”
To understand the importance of Camp Liberty and why it faces continued threats, it would be best to look at a recent rally in Paris, France.
On July 9, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) brought together more than 100,000 people in support of a free Iran. The event focused on working toward a democratic Iran, no longer bound by the current theocratic regime. A bipartisan group of Americans spoke at the gathering including politicians, generals and activists. Even former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) took the stage.
NCRI is the umbrella organization for a number of anti-regime political movements from Iran. The largest and most well-known branch is the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK. The people attacked in Camp Liberty are connected to this group.
“Free Iran”, annual gathering of Iranian communities, Bourget, Paris, France, 9 July 2016, Maryam Rajavi is the President of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, an organisation that was funded, to help overthrow the Iranian government (Sipa via AP Images)Maryam Rajavi, the President of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, speaks at the “Free Iran” annual gathering of Iranian communities in Paris, France. | Photo: AP
The MEK has a unique relationship with America. In 1997, it was added to the U.S. terror list under President Bill Clinton, allegedly at the request of the Iranian regime during negotiations. In 2012, a bipartisan group of congressmen worked to remove the group from the list, citing the MEK’s help with U.S. intelligence efforts in Iran, as well as no recent history of terrorist activities and the political motivations for placing the group on the list in the first place.
Almost every American speaking at NCRI mentioned Camp Liberty. Former White House director of public liaison Linda Chavez said, “Let’s honor and commend the bravery and dedication of Camp Liberty residents.” Francis Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, brought up the bipartisan advocacy on the part of Americans. “We’re not done with that work until the last person leaves Camp Liberty, we will not be stopped,” Townsend said.
It makes sense that Americans feel connected to what happens at Camp Liberty, since the location is a former U.S military base. The residents of the camp were evicted from their former location, Camp Ashraf, also a U.S. base.
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Ashraf, a city and then a base, was established by the MEK in 1986, when their members fled persecution in Iran and began setting up a militarized presence in Iraq. The U.S. assumed control of the base after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The MEK relinquished its weapons in 2004 and received protected status under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Retired Colonel Wesley Martin was the first U.S. military official to serve as base commander in 2006. During his time at Ashraf, Martin developed a professional relationship with the MEK, and when his tour of duty ended he continued to stay in communication with the group’s leaders on behalf of the State Department and the Pentagon. But when President Obama pulled out of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq in 2009, U.S. support for camps such as Ashraf went away as well. The camp was turned over to Iraq’s government.
Due to numerous conflicts and Iraq’s desire to close the camp, the United Nations stepped in. Attempts at mediation with Iraq failed and in 2011, Martin Kobler, head of the United Nations’ Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) took over. He altered the UN’s policy toward the MEK, leaning on their designation as terrorists. He shifted from seeking human rights assistance to a plan for relocation. This goal was much more acceptable to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
So in 2012 the residents of Ashraf were forcibly moved to Camp Liberty, which was smaller and less hospitable than the previous location. In fact, a working group of the UN Human Rights Council called the status of the MEK at both Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf “arbitrary detention.”
Once the 3,400 members of MEK were moved to their temporary transit location, they fell under the care of the UNHCR (United National High Commissioner on Refugees).
FILE – In this April 28, 2016 file photo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. McCain says President Barack Obama is “directly responsible” for the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.AP, in which a gunman killed 49 people because he allowed the growth of the Islamic State on his watch. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is leading the charge in Congress to protect and relocate the residents of Camp Liberty. | Photo: AP
Martin worked with the American side, attempting to resolve the status of the MEK. “Ambassador Daniel Fried [then Assistant Secretary of State] personally assured us… The plan was as soon as they come in we’ll process them in and go back to Iran.” Martin noted, “But they didn’t want to go back to Iran obviously.” Fortunately, the UNHCR sought a third placement country.
But Camp Liberty didn’t end up being a short-term project at all. Four years later, the camp still exists with around 1,300 residents. Martin says the plan was to move out 200 people at a time, but instead the groups have been closer to 40.
Martin places the blame on the UN. He says American politicians, all the way up to the White House, want to see the relocations completed. Martin admits he has differences with the Vice President, but added: “I know Joe Biden wants it resolved.”
About the United Nations’ failure to move forward Martin said, “The UN is a bureaucratic organization. The UN moves at the pace of a startled snail, and the other thing, in all honesty, the UN is not a pure origination, there are a lot of political motivations.”
One of the reasons the U.S. wants to see the Liberty situation resolved is because of the continued attacks against the camp. The July 4 missiles weren’t the first. Four rocket attacks occurred in 2013, the camp was blockaded in 2014 and more attacks linked to Iranian paramilitary groups happened in 2015. Many lost their lives and the remaining camp residents are still at risk.
Martin insists the United States needs to follow through with its own recommendations. “All we gotta do is put them on busses, put them on planes, get them to Albania,” he said. “And then no problems, [the Albanians] were happy to take them.”
In the meantime, Martin says the U.S. State Department should be more involved. “They should be monitoring the camp on a daily basis,” he said.
Last month’s attack and the political rally brought Camp Liberty back into international focus. The UNHCR released a report congratulating itself on the relocation work done so far. But Americans, like McCain are taking more aggressive action. The senior senator from Arizona pushed a resolution, S.Con.Res.42, to the Foreign Relations committee. It passed unanimously, and now heads to the Senate for a floor vote.
This kind of soft pressure has proved effective in the past. According to Martin, larger groups of Iranians have been transferred out of the camp in recent weeks (though he worries another attack is likely to happen). The bipartisan support of humanitarian efforts to rescue people in Camp Liberty give the U.S. an even stronger voice on the issue, one expected to end by 2017.