Former Camp Ashraf commander Thomas Cantwell: Another massacre in the Middle East that nobody is talking about

While much of the world is preoccupied by Syria, killings have also reached new levels of evil a short distance away in Iraq. 

Fifty-two people were murdered on Sept. 1 while confined to their own small desert community, called Camp Ashraf, in central Iraq. Trapped in Ashraf by an agreement with the U.S. State Department, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Iraqi government, many of them were handcuffed or bound by the wrists before being shot in the head. Among these victims was Hossein Madani, a tireless foreign relations staff and spokesman for the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran who had studied in the U.S. and was a friend of mine.

Madani was first shot in the abdomen. After being helped back into his living quarters, he waited in agony for medical assistance that never came. What came instead was his executioner. As he sat against a wall, wounded and defenseless, he was shot through the top of the head in a despicable act of cowardice and evil. There were 51 others who suffered a similar fate; seven were kidnapped and are still missing today.

What does this have to do with us? Very simply, we disarmed these people and rendered them defenseless. We assured them that the U.S. would protect them in exchange for their disarming. We granted them refugee status under the Geneva Conventions. Later, once they were disarmed, the State Department would unilaterally revoke protected persons status and turn responsibility for their security over to the Iraqi Government. 

This brings us back to the killers. Who were these persons? As one of the first U.S. Army commanders there, I reconnoitered the entire facility and its surroundings. I know the ground. I find it unbelievable that the Iraqi security was completely unaware of the attackers. We have evidence that the killings occurred over a period of hours. Yet, the Iraqi government tells us that they didn’t hear the gunfire. And why didn’t the security forces have an arrangement for emergency response inside the camp? The implausibility of their denials makes it is clear that someone in the Iraqi security forces or the government is colluding with the killers. An even more chilling possibility is that the killers were members of the Iraqi security forces.

We, the American military personnel operating there, knew Hossein Madani and many of his fellow expatriates. During my time at Ashraf, one of them saved an American soldier from drowning after he fell in to one of the canals. We returned home to the United States with a profound sense of the values of Camp Ashraf, and the virtues of its people. As those responsible for implementing U.S. policy there, we also returned with a sense of the United States’s duties and obligations to the people of Camp Ashraf. Many had been there when the Ashrafis signed an agreement with the U.S., accepting total disarmament in exchange for security under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention. A close friend of mine and fellow Army officer personally handed Hossein his “protected persons” identity card. 

It is therefore with dismay and astonishment that we watch today as our government abrogates its own word and accepts the Government of Iraq’s trampling of our agreements. When the State Department revoked “protected persons” status and turned security responsibilities over to the Iraqi government, the agreement included guarantees for the safety and security of the Asrafis. When the State Department negotiated along with UNAMI the transfer of many Asrafis to a separate camp at the former U.S. Camp Liberty, it insisted on specific measures for the safety and security of these people. 

Now, 52 men and women have been murdered in the third terrorist attack on the very people that my colleagues and I disarmed and protected. Seven more have disappeared in the custody of the attackers. We have been betrayed, the guarantees that the State Department required are being trampled and the U.S. Embassy is granting concession after concession in abrogation of the agreement. It is shameful for every American to see our apparent powerlessness in Iraq and tragic for those we once protected, who now have been rendered helpless and unprotected — or lie in a cold morgue.

In the president’s recent address on Syria, he said: “My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.” I agree, and call upon the president to show the same determination and commitment to those we promised to protect and have now left abandoned and helpless. 

Mr. President, secure the safety of the survivors of the recent massacre; support an impartial, international investigation of this massacre and take charge of the relocation of those displaced Ashrafis who are waiting in Camp Liberty for their fates to be decided. They too are still in danger from an autocratic Iraqi government that has repeatedly demonstrated that it is either criminally incompetent to protect the Asrafis or — worse — in active collusion with those who would harm these people. 

There is blood on the hands of the Iraqi government. Our failure to protect these people and quickly resolve their status leaves blood on our hands also. The time to act and redeem this situation is now. The president said, “For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.” I would add sometimes agreements are not enough either, Mr. President.

Cantwell, as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, commanded U.S. forces at Camp Ashraf in 2003. His views are his own and in no way reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Defense.