The enduring short-sightedness of Iraq policies

A narrow focus on the Islamic State group and northern Iraq may lead to disaster – again.

Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, shows a banner with pictures of Iranian dissidents killed in Camp Ashraf in Iraq [Reuters]

With Nouri al-Maliki out as prime minister of Iraq, is the country on the verge of entering into a new era of freedom and stability? Will Haider al-Abbadi truly prove to be the leader of a unity government that reaches out to the Sunnis, Kurds, and others who had been shut out by Maliki’s Shia dictatorship? Will the Abbadi government, together with new-found military support from the West, be capable of halting the progress of the Islamic State group and reclaiming Iraq for the Iraqi people?

The answers to all of these questions remain very much in the air, and policymakers must guard themselves against thinking otherwise. The removal of Maliki is a good first step, but it doesn’t guarantee unity. Fighting against the Islamic State group is commendable, but it shouldn’t lead Western powers to think that other threats in the region are diminished in either importance or seriousness.

Excessive optimism about Iraq and its neighbours has proved disastrous in the past. It has, in fact, cost many human lives and contributed to the situation that the Middle East faces today. It will happen again if we forget prior mistakes and failings, and focus too narrowly on the Islamic State group and northern Iraq. The problem touches upon many different groups and extends from Baghdad to Basra and far beyond that, especially to the regime in Tehran.

Camp Ashraf massacre

September 1 marks the one year anniversary of the Camp Ashraf massacre, an under-reported incident that showcases the extent of Iranian influence in the Iraqi government, the seriousness of its consequences, and the cost of turning a blind eye to regional developments or holding onto the naive belief that everything will work out on its own.

It was apparently such a belief that led directly to last year’s massacre, which claimed the lives of 52 Iranian dissidents living in exile in Iraq, led to the abduction of seven others, and has been followed by endless aftershocks in the form of rocket attacks and repressive measures against the surviving dissidents in their new home of Camp Liberty.

In a testament to the short-sightedness of US policy towards both Iraq and Iran, the people at Camp Ashraf were left alone and defenceless under the watch of Maliki’s forces after the US pulled out of the country. This wholesale abandonment came in spite of the fact that during the occupation, the dissident community had been granted Protected Persons Status and assured by the State Department that they would be kept out of harm’s way.

I cannot believe that the US would wilfully renege on its obligations and abandon any peoples to a violent fate, so I can only conclude that the Obama administration simply didn’t realise how little trust Maliki had earned, or how deeply his Shia allies in Tehran had clawed their way into his government.

But if they didn’t realise those facts in 2009, they were certainly proved last year by a massacre that was undeniably carried out by Maliki’s forces but clearly served the interests of the Iranian mullahs, who have worked throughout the history of the Islamic Republic to stamp out all organised political opposition, in particular its arch enemies, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

Essential lessons

If the Obama administration and our own government could not anticipate the deaths of the 52 members of that organisation at Camp Ashraf, they should have at least learned a few essential lessons from the incident.

Above all, American and British policymakers must understand there is cause to be very wary about putting too much trust in the leaders they have helped to install. Such persons cannot be assumed to fulfil the West’s obligations.

Where Obama failed on these points with respect to Maliki, he can still succeed with Abbadi. He can monitor the situation in Iraq closely and give particular attention to the new prime minister’s relationship with Tehran. The way the new prime minister will deal with the Iranian dissidents will be a yardstick. Washington and London can help fulfil their own obligations by speeding the relocation of the 3,000 residents of Camp Liberty to some place or places where they will no longer be under threat from an Iranian regime that is poised to boost its military presence in Iraq.

And, in the light of Iranian culpability for last year’s massacre, the Obama administration ought now to be well aware of the dangers posed by such an expanded military presence. If the US is committed to avoiding the repetition of past mistakes, and to fulfilling its obligations, it must take steps to make sure that Iran neither holds sway in the Abbadi administration nor controls Shia militias operating in Iraq.

Iranian influence

The US failed to recognise the extent of the Iranian influence in the past, and 52 defenceless individuals died for that mistake in one awful day. Untold others died as an indirect result because Iranian support emboldened Maliki to drive Sunnis and Kurds to the fringes of Iraqi society, and the ensuing sectarian conflict set the stage for the emergence and meteoric rise of the Islamic State group.

The political situation that led to the Camp Ashraf massacre also doomed Iraq to instability and a lack of both democracy and civic freedom. It was neither Maliki nor the Islamic State group alone that robbed the country of those things, and they won’t be reclaimed unless the US recognises the need for true Iraqi autonomy, which rejects Iran both as a friend and as an ally of convenience. Only then will recent changes in Iraq mean internal unity, plurality, victory over extremism, and the start of a new era for the Iraqi people.

Lord Alex Carlile of Berriew CBE QC, is a Liberal Democrat member of the UK House of Lords and co-chair of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom (BPCIF). He was the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in the United Kingdom (2001-11).