The MeK during Operation Iraqi Freedom
Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) war planners designated the MeK as a hostile military target, in large part because the United States viewed the group as an unofficial subsidiary of Saddam’s military.10
Planners did not, however, provide field commanders with guidance about what to do following combat with the MeK. After brief combat (which the MeK denies ever occurred), Special Forces officers signed a cease-fire agreement with the MeK in April 2003.
Lacking any briefings regarding the MeK’s cult practices and past criminal activities, the officers were persuaded by the MeK leadership’s false claims (presented in fluent English) that the MeK had offered to fight on behalf of the coalition, and they allowed the MeK to retain their weapons.11
Washington agencies agreed that the MeK should be disarmed and compelled to surrender, but the coalition officers who negotiated with the group in May 2003 were again dissuaded from carrying out this instruction.
The new agreement did disarm the MeK, and it consolidated the MeK’s membership at the group’s largest compound, Camp Ashraf, which is about 40 miles north of Baghdad.12
However, coalition forces accepted a cease-fire rather than the MeK’s surrender. Using buildings constructed by the MeK about 500 yards from Camp Ashraf, the coalition established a primitive forward operating base (FOB) to house personnel who supervised the MeK as well as coalition soldiers who provided security in the area.13
Many MeK members requested coalition assistance to leave the group, and the coalition constructed a temporary internment and protection facility (TIPF) adjacent to the coalition base to house them.14
Because international humanitarian law governing detention varies according to the detainees’ legal classification—as, for example, combatants or civilians (or “unlawful” or “illegal” combatants, under the George W. Bush administration’s controversial exceptions)—a first task for the coalition was to classify the MeK. According to the terms of the Third Geneva Convention and U.S. military law, coalition forces treated the MeK as enemy prisoners of war (EPWs) on an interim basis until each member’s status could be determined by a competent tribunal.
However, no tribunal decision was made. Instead, in June 2004, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld designated the MeK as protected persons (e.g., civilians) under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
After this contentious designation, coalition forces maintained security at Camp Ashraf until authority was transferred to the GOI in accordance with the status of forces agreement that took effect on January 1, 2009.
10 See, for example, Buchan, 2002.
11 For a discussion of the MeK’s presentation techniques by someone who found them persuasive—apparently due to the lack of briefings given to coalition officers, the MeK’s language skills, and the relative comforts of MeK camps—see Putko, 2006.
12 Although Camp Ashraf is also known as Ashraf City, this monograph uses the more commonly applied name, Camp Ashraf.
13 Over time, the base became less primitive. It has had several names, but was last called FOB Grizzly.
14 These former MeK members were treated as voluntary internees under Article 42 of Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. The TIPF was replaced with a more permanent facility in 2006 that was renamed the Ashraf Refugee Camp (ARC) in 2007. The ARC was closed in autumn 2008, and its residents were relocated to Kurdistan.