OpinionIran in the World PressIranian interference in Iraq

Iranian interference in Iraq


ImageAsharq al-Awsat – By Lord Corbett: The UK is not the only one contemplating the future of Iraq now that our troops have handed over formal responsibility for Basra last week. Next door, Shiite Iran is busy working out its next move.

Asharq al-Awsat

By Lord Corbett

ImageThe UK is not the only one contemplating the future of Iraq now that our troops have handed over formal responsibility for Basra last week. Next door, Shiite Iran is busy working out its next move. Tehran has long been chief trouble-maker in the country, making use of roadside bombs in the hope that more Coalition casualties inflicted will see a quicker departure of foreign troops.

But Iran has suffered a major setback. In the January provincial elections, the slate allied to it failed to win in any of the provinces, even in the south where it believed it had the most amount of Shiite support.

This was partly due to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's successful reining in of rogue militias and a decision by Sunni leaders to end their boycott of the polls. (The 2005 polls were largely deserted by Sunnis who felt any vote at a time of occupation would be illegitimate.)

Bitterly divided because of factional feuding, the Sunnis and even some secular nationalist and democratic parties were pulled together with the unexpectedly help of Iran's main opposition group, the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI) which has been based in Camp Ashraf in Iraq's Diyala Province for over two decades.

Having firsthand experience of the result of fundamentalist forces taking control of their own country, PMOI members have worked hard ever since the 2003 invasion to convince Iraqis that their main enemy is not the US or its allies; but Iran's fundamentalist theocracy.

After the pernicious blow in the January polls, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is trying to eliminate the PMOI before Iraq's Parliamentary elections in December reshape the Iraqi government's political make-up.

In late February, Khamenei told Iraq's visiting President Jalal Talabani in Tehran: "The bilateral agreement on the expulsion of the PMOI from Iraq must be implemented". This set the stage for pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi government to step up pressure on the residents of Camp Ashraf and attempt to expel them.

Iraq's National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said in March: "These individuals have been brainwashed, and we must liberate them from this poison. When we carry out a process of detoxification, if this assumption is correct, this act will at first be painful. There is no alternative than to begin this painful act."

Last month al-Rubaie ordered Iraqi forces, who took over responsibility for protecting Ashraf from the Americans at the start of the year, to prevent the transfer of basic commodities including medicine and fuel into Ashraf. For the past three weeks, relatives of the PMOI members, Iraqi doctors and foreign journalists have been denied access to the camp. It seems as though, under Iranian pressure, the Iraqis are creating a Guantanamo of their own. This surely cannot be the legacy that we leave behind as we exit Iraq.

Since 2004 the Coalition has recognised all Ashraf residents as 'Protected Persons' under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that the residents are also protected by the Principle of Non-Refoulement under international law which forbids Baghdad from extraditing them.

If al-Rubaie is allowed to carry out his plan the UK will have to shoulder the blame for sitting back as a humanitarian tragedy occurs. Expulsion would remove the one group that is a strong barrier to the expansion of the mullahs' fundamentalism to this nascent democracy, allowing Iran to reverse much of the progress that has been made.

Iraqi Sunni leaders such as Saleh Mutlaq who heads the National Dialogue Front in the Iraqi Parliament and even some powerful Shiites such as Ayatollah Ayad Jamaleddin who sits on the Iraqi Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee have suggested that US forces take back responsibility for protection of Ashraf since that would relieve some of Tehran's pressure on the Iraqi government to suppress the group.

As a major partner to the Coalition that went to war in Iraq, the British government has a duty to put this proposal to the Obama administration. Mr Gordon Brown can use Britain's 'special relationship' to get President Obama listening.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale chairs the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom. He is a former chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.

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