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America abandons its responsibility for Iranian dissidents in Iraq

In 2003, I served as a senior military officer at Camp Ashraf, Iraq. In keeping with my responsibility as an oath-bound Army officer and under the Geneva Convention, I made a solemn promise to the group of 3,000 Iranian dissidents living there. I assumed U.S. Army responsibility for the security of these people, who were living in fear of being hunted by the Iranian regime and its allied Shiia death squads in Iraq. Initially considered "terrorists," the dissidents were detained, disarmed, confined, subjected to military intelligence and FBI screening and ultimately guaranteed protected persons status under the Geneva Convention. This responsibility was not merely mine but America's.

Last month, 52 of those same residents we swore to protect — and in some cases knew personally — were massacred by the very troops we trained and to which we handed responsibility for protection of the camp. It was the fifth such attack.

As U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, the State Department negotiated a three-way agreement with the United Nations mission in Iraq and the Iraqi government under which the Iraqis would fulfill the security promise we had made to the dissidents. Available evidence overwhelmingly supports the contention that Iraqi security forces themselves were either the perpetrators or complicit in the killings. The 3,000 people that we turned over to the Iraqis under a promise of protection are now in danger of being totally wiped out.

The Iraqi government has denied involvement in the latest attack, in which 52 unarmed men and women were shot to death, many execution-style, including some lying injured on gurneys in the medical clinic. I find the Iraqi denial simply unbelievable. This was an hours-long assault on a facility closely guarded by Iraqi security forces. Their main checkpoint was within 20 meters of one of the murders. The distinctive blue trucks belonging to Iraqi security forces are clearly visible in photos and videos made by the victims during the assault.

The attackers used explosives and U.S.-made small arms. They wore U.S.-provided uniforms and boots. The handcuffs used to tie the hands of unarmed men and women before they were shot through the head are U.S.-made. Video taken at the start of the attack shows the attackers employing U.S.-style tactical movement techniques. It is beyond the realm of possibility to believe that Iraqi troops were not directly involved.

Iraq is once more descending into a bitter and protracted civil war. As much as we may wish to put Iraq in the rearview mirror, it is impossible to ignore the rising tempo of sectarian attacks. Suicide bombings and civilian deaths are again rapidly on the rise. Policymakers say that Iranian influence is a major part of the problem. Iran is undeterred by the greatly-diminished U.S. presence, and spillover from the Syrian civil war is undoubtedly contributing to Iraq's slide back into chaos. In the middle of this civil disintegration are the surviving Iranian refugees, right where we left them.

The U.S. State Department remains oblivious to the risk posed by the rapidly deteriorating security situation and the growing Iranian threat the massacre at Camp Ashraf portends. The official reaction to the massacre was telling. Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last month that the refugees were safe because they were being provided "sandbags."

The dissidents are now concentrated in the ironically named "Camp Liberty" on the outskirts of Baghdad. This facility does not have T-walls for mortar protection. It is surrounded by the same security forces that likely perpetrated the attack on Camp Ashraf. Even more worrisome than a lack of basic force protection measures, the Obama administration fails to see that the assault on the unarmed Iranian dissidents is itself a contemptuous signal that the Iraqi government is effectively under Iranian control. A massacre in a dusty Iraqi camp has huge implications to America's leadership across the region.

Our responsibility is clear. There is no moral gray area. As Secretary John Kerry said on April 19, "Part of American leadership is ... standing up for those who fight for their own rights ... sometimes in the most desolate places, without support. It is our effort to stand up for the universal rights of all people."

Secretary Kerry should heed his own words and stand for the voiceless Iranian refugees huddled in Camp Liberty. These people, most still carrying our "protected persons" passes in their pockets, are living in the shadow of rapidly spreading civil war and looming Iranian hegemony. The only true protection for them now is an immediate humanitarian evacuation to secure asylum in the U.S. as political refugees. Only in this way can America redeem its promise and written commitment to these residents who trusted our words. The deteriorating security situation in Camp Liberty and the inability and unwillingness of the Iraqis to protect them renders this decision time-critical. Delay equals death.

Col. Thomas Cantwell was commander of the 324th MP Battalion, based at Camp Ashraf from May until October 2003. He lives in Frederick. His email is thomas.cantwell@wildblue.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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