|Aware of the MeK’s presence in Iraq, OIF planners had to determine whether it posed a threat to coalition forces. After some debate among U.S. military and civilian officials regarding its status, the MeK was listed as a hostile target.|
The MeK during Operation Iraqi Freedom
Aware of the MeK’s presence in Iraq, OIF planners had to determine whether it posed a threat to coalition forces. After some debate among U.S. military and civilian officials regarding its status, the MeK was listed as a hostile target.1
This decision was based primarily on the MeK’s past history of working with Saddam’s military, including its alleged participation in the suppression of the Shia and Kurdish uprisings of 1991, as well as the many violent attacks that it had conducted against Iranian targets in recent years.2
Further, the MeK had a substantial armory, thanks to its long relationship with Saddam. Near MeK camps, there were dozens of bunkers belonging to both the MeK and the Iraqi military. These bunkers
were generously stocked with weaponry, including artillery, tanks, aircraft, rocket launchers, infantry weapons, shells, rockets, land mines, and bullets. Whatever the MeK’s military intentions against coalition forces might have been, it was imperative for the coalition to secure these armaments and munitions. Moreover, the group was a wild card that could have created security concerns vis-à-vis the IRI as well as the Shia and Kurd communities.
Finally, during negotiations between the United States and the IRI in January 2003, the United States agreed to bomb MeK bases in return for Iranian support for subsequent reconstruction efforts and cooperation in rescuing downed pilots.3
A MeK Cease-Fire but Not a Surrender
For its part, the MeK insisted that it dispatched a letter to DOS in February 2003 declaring its intention to be a neutral party during the impending invasion of Iraq and stating that it would not fire on coalition forces, even in self-defense.4
It also claimed to have offered to fight on behalf of the coalition.5
No interviewees were aware of such a letter or offer. Irrespective of the accuracy of either of these claims, such a letter was not discussed, or at least was not persuasive, in OIF planning.
Despite the MeK’s statements to the contrary, both the official U.S. Army Special Forces history and the official U.S. Army history of OIF indicate that the MeK engaged coalition forces in battle, presenting a “formidable threat” and demonstrating “excellent fighting qualities.”6
Nevertheless, on April 13, 2003, in the face of collapsing Iraqi forces, the MeK requested peace. U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) ordered the special operations unit that had received the request to demand that the MeK capitulate and be disarmed.
However, the subsequent encounter between the special operations negotiating team and the MeK took a different turn. The MeK sent leaders who were fluent in English and who took pains to establish ties with the United States by claiming—falsely, as it turned out—that a large portion of the group had advanced degrees from American universities and family members residing in the United States. The MeK again insisted that it had not fired on coalition forces (despite at least one documented Special Forces casualty from MeK fire) and that it had offered to fight on the coalition’s behalf. The MeK also indicated a willingness to provide intelligence on Iran and to help secure the border with Iran. Impressed by the MeK’s description of itself and its apparent willingness to be of service to the coalition, on April 15, 2003, special operations officers agreed to a cease-fire rather than to the surrender ordered by USCENTCOM.
The April 15 “Local Ceasefire Agreement of Mutual Understanding and Co-Ordination” was simply a truce. Like any truce, it provided the “suspension of military operations to the extent agreed upon by the parties.”7
In this case, the agreement stipulated that either side could recommence hostilities after giving 48-hours’ notice.8
It also allowed the MeK to retain its weapons and confined its members to five of its camps.
Given the coalition’s scarce manpower and the Special Forces’ need for mobility, the cease-fire agreement seemed to offer an appealing alternative to surrender, which would have burdened the capturing forces with legal and logistical obligations to protect and possibly also to feed and house the captives as POWs according to the Geneva Convention III Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.9
However, it has been noted that the special forces commander had no authority to enter into this type of agreement—i.e., one that allowed a designated FTO to keep its weapons—and this decision later created a substantial political and operational problem for the United States.10
1. Interviews with Office of the Secretary of Defense and White House staff, January 2008 and February 2008; Center for Law and Military Operations, 2004.
2. Briscoe et al., 2006; DOS, 2003b.
3. Interview with a former White House staff member, January 2008; Bruck, 2006; Kessler,
4. Center for Law and Military Operations, 2004.
5. Much of the following discussion of the early interactions between coalition forces and the MeK is drawn from Briscoe et al., 2006.
6. Briscoe et al., 2006, p. 234; D. Wright and Reese, 2008. It is worth noting that the belief of most coalition officers and officials whom we interviewed in Iraq and in the United States was that the MeK had not engaged coalition forces in battle. For instance, DOS (2006, p. 213) reported that the “MeK leadership ordered its members not to resist Coalition forces at the outset of [OIF].” If the official Army histories are correct, this prevailing belief is most likely due to the MeK leaders’ messaging.
7. Headquarters, U.S. Department of the Army, 1976, para. 479.
8. Center for Law and Military Operations, 2004.
9. Although international usage does not differentiate among prisoners of war, American usage distinguishes between Americans or allies taken prisoner (POWs) and enemy prisoners of war (EPWs).
10. Center for Law and Military Operations, 2004, p. 71, n. 276.