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Opinion | Who Is Responsible for the MKO Massacre at Camp Ashraf?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

13 Apr 2011 15:43Comments

Three decades of broken promises, baseless predictions, bizarre tactics by MKO leader Masoud Rajavi.

[ opinion ] On April 8, Iraqi armed forces attacked Camp Ashraf, located in Diyala, 75 miles west of the Iran-Iraq border and 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Nearly 3,500 members of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), the Iranian opposition group, live in Camp Ashraf. Iraqi troops entered the camp, leading to a number of deaths and a large number of serious injuries. The Iraqi government claimed that the MKO members "rioted" and threw rocks at Iraqi forces, and denied that any deadly force was used. But video footage of the attack posted on YouTube shows Iraqi soldiers firing on unarmed MKO members who resisted the movement of armored vehicles into the camp. The exact number of deaths is not known. Iraq claims that three people were killed, while the MKO puts the number at 33. Local hospitals in the area have reported 12 deaths.

One cannot but condemn the attacks. Anytime unarmed civilians are attacked by a military/security/intelligence force, their dignity and fundamental human rights have been violated. The attacks on Camp Ashraf are no different. Regardless of what one may think of the MKO, massacring unarmed human beings, among them many children and young people, is a crime and must be condemned by any decent human being, particularly those who consider themselves defenders of human rights. But, condemnation is meaningful only if the culprits are held responsible. So who are the culprits? Who should ultimately be held responsible?

It is not easy to watch the tragic and utterly sad tapes of the attack on the camp and not get angry at the Iraqi government. It is easy to call Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a "war criminal" and a "lackey of Khamenei and his bloodthirsty regime," and he may very well be either or both. But, while al-Maliki must shoulder some responsibility, the people who are ultimately responsible for these crimes are none other than the leadership of the MKO, and in particular Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, the Supreme Leader and "President-Elect" of the so-called "Resistance."

The MKO members in Camp Ashraf are prisoners, not just because of where they live, but also because of the ideological jail that has been built around them by the MKO leadership, whose futility and bankruptcy have been proven time and again. They are unable to finally acknowledge that it is their leaders that put them in harm's way, while they enjoy comfortable lives in Europe and the United States. How many times must Masoud Rajavi's analyses, proclamations, and predictions turn out to be wrong, and how much blood must be shed because of his catastrophic errors, in order for the ordinary MKO members to recognize the true criminal that he is? Everything that the man has done since almost immediately after the 1979 Revolution has gone wrong. Nothing has gone right for the MKO, and yet the group's members still consider him the "Savior," the "Guide," the "link to Imam Mahdi," the "hero."

Let us briefly consider some of Rajavi's great miscalculations and false proclamations, and the misery that they have brought onto the members of the MKO. I will not even discuss the many horror stories that former MKO members have recounted about what happened to them in Rajavi's Iraq jails when they protested his actions or simply wanted to leave the organization. Those who are interested should read The Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel, by Masoud Banisadr. A second cousin of Abolhassan Bani Sadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, Banisadr was a longtime member of the MKO who quit the organization in the 1990s.

Overestimating MKO strength and fleeing to France

In June 1981, Rajavi overestimated the strength of the MKO and decided to take up arms against the Islamic Republic, in the midst of a brutal war against Iraq. On June 19, the MKO issued a harshly worded statement declaring armed struggle against the government and calling Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini all sorts of names -- the same ayatollah who, just two weeks earlier, the MKO still referred to as "the Father" and "the Leader." Over the next two days, huge demonstrations and counterdemonstrations were held by the MKO and the government. Dozens were executed on June 21 and 22, including at least 12 young girls whose identities were not known even to the judiciary.

On June 28, there was a huge explosion in the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party, a clergy-dominated political group whose founders included Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili. By some estimates, nearly 120 people were killed, including the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, and scores of other senior government and political figures. The MKO began assassinating senior clergy and government officials, and the Islamic Republic retaliated by carrying out large-scale executions. But as the Persian proverb goes, "wet and dry burn together" -- members and supporters of other groups that tried to stay away from the carnage, as well as nonpolitical Iranians, were also arrested and executed, as the MKO uprising gave the extremists the "excuse" they were looking for. Just one example: In Tehran's main cemetery, Behesht-e Zahra, a young medical doctor is laid to rest close to where my brother and parents are buried. He was executed at the age of 28 because he treated people who were injured during the demonstrations and counterdemonstrations, including some supporters of the MKO. Otherwise, he was an apolitical young man.

Once it became clear that the MKO uprising could not topple the Islamic Republic, Rajavi, together with Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who had been impeached from his position as the first president of Iran after the Revolution, fled the country. A Boeing 707, flown by an Air Force pilot, took them first to Turkey and then to Paris. Rajavi left his young, inexperienced supporters in Iran, and flew to the safety of France. MKO members were told that Rajavi would soon return to Iran in triumph and take control of the government. All they had to do was make more sacrifices with their blood. That they did, but Rajavi, now 64 years old, has yet to return, and the MKO has gone from one disaster to another.

'Brilliant' tactic: armed demonstrations

Then, from exile, Rajavi thought of another "brilliant" tactic: armed demonstrations in Tehran and other cities. The MKO supporters were ordered to demonstrate with guns, in order to display their bravery and determination. The result: more executions. I am not condoning the executions; they were clearly illegal and immoral, particularly since many of the executed were very young. The point is that Rajavi, a seasoned guerrilla from the 1960s and supposedly a great tactician and strategist, should have known better.

On February 8, 1982, the MKO suffered a tremendous blow. Mousa Khiabani, the commander of the MKO forces in Iran, his pregnant wife, Azar Rezai -- whose brothers Ahmad, Reza, and Mehdi had been killed under the Shah -- Ashraf Rabiei, Rajavi's wife, and 18 other MKO members were killed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in a shootout -- a bodyguard of Khiabani was a government informer. The three had managed to break through the Revolutionary Guard forces, but their bulletproof Peugeot was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that killed everyone but Rajavi's one-year-old son, Mostafa. Rajavi, now unrivaled within the MKO, appointed Ali Zarkesh the new commander of the group's forces in Iran. He was killed six years later during the MKO's Iraq-based assault on Iran (see below).

The Supreme Leader of the MKO, now a widower, married Bani Sadr's young daughter, Firouzeh, a university student in Paris. It was clearly a political marriage. They were divorced in 1984. Rajavi's aide in Paris who looked after his wife and ran his office was Maryam Abrishamchi (née Azodanlou), wife of Mehdi Abrishamchi, a leading member of the MKO from its inception in 1965. She is currently the unelected "President-Elect of the Resistance." Active in the struggle against the Shah, Azodanlou was a midranking member of the MKO after the Revolution and ran unsuccessfully as a candidate from Tehran in the elections for the first Majles in 1980.

The campaign of assassinations by the MKO and the execution of young MKO members and sympathizers and supporters of other political groups continued for another two years. In a recent article, Bani Sadr stated that when he and Rajavi fled Iran, Rajavi had promised him that only a very few of the most reactionary officials would be assassinated; as usual, he betrayed this promise. The reactionary right used the MKO's assassination campaign and the war with Iraq to go after other political groups, such as Saazmaan-e Paykaar Baraaye Azaadi-ye Tabagheh Kaargar (Combat Organization on the Path of Emancipation of the Working Class), a Stalinist-Maoist offshoot of the MKO; Raah-e Kaargar (Worker's Path); and the so-called "minority faction" of Saazmaan-e Cherik Haaye Fadaaei-ye Khalgh-e Iran (Organization of People's Fadaaiyan Guerrillas of Iran), which had played an important role in the struggle against the Shah. Gradually, even the members and supporters of the Tudeh Party -- the pro-Soviet communist party -- and the "majority faction" of the People's Fadaaiyan Guerrillas, which had supported the government, were no longer safe. Thousands of people, most of them young, were summarily executed.

Peace treaty with Iraq and 'ideological revolution'

In 1983, Rajavi signed a peace treaty with Saddam Hussein on behalf of the Iranian nation. He claimed that for Tehran to accept peace would be tantamount to political suicide, and once peace broke out, the regime would quickly fall and the MKO would come to power. That prediction also turned out to be baseless. Although in July 1988, Khomeini drank "the glass of poison" and accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, passed the previous year, his regime is still around. The net result of the "peace treaty" was that the MKO simply became a card in Hussein's hands to play against Iran.

By 1985, the MKO had already been transformed into a cult. Abrishamchi divorced his wife so that she could marry Rajavi. This was presented to the MKO as an "ideological revolution," because Maryam Abrishamchi -- now Maryam Rajavi -- had supposedly reached such a level of competence that Rajavi promoted her to be the group's coleader. Matters of romance aside, in reality this was another step Rajavi took to immunize himself from any criticism. He was now the "ideological leader" of the MKO, equivalent to the Supreme Leader in the Islamic Republic. Rajavi thus set up the same sort of power structure that he supposedly despised for himself and his wife. Soon there was neither an MKO Central Committee nor Politburo, both of which existed before Rajavi left Iran.

Mehdi Abrashamchi released a statement (possibly under duress) in which he said that he understood the "grandeur of this epic event." Abrashamchi, 40 at the time, then married Azar Khiabani, Mousa Khiabani's 18-year-old sister. In Iran, the marriages were considered scandalous and mocked. But, once again, the MKO members and supporters accepted the "ideological revolution," which sealed their fate and completed the transformation of the MKO from a military/political organization into a political cult.

Rajavi told the MKO members that to fight Khomeini's regime, it was not enough to hate the ayatollah, but that they must also love and adore Rajavi and accept him as the undisputed ideological leader. No one could criticize him because he was the link to Imam Mahdi, Shiism's 12th Imam who disappeared over 1,000 years ago and whose eventual return is the subject of prayer by devout Shiites. Note that the same type of ideological "purity" is demanded by the reactionary clerics in Iran, using precisely the same mythology: Khamenei is the deputy of Imam Mahdi in his absence and must be obeyed without question.

Some objected. Zarkesh, the commander of the MKO forces in Iran, was opposed to the "ideological revolution." He was thus wooed to Paris and, upon arrival, immediately demoted to a low-ranking fighter. Despite his opposition, Zarkesh remained loyal to the MKO and was killed during one of the group's operations (see below). Parviz Yaghoubi, who was married to the late Ashraf Rajavi's sister, objected to the "revolution." He faced a "trial," very similar to an Islamic Republic show trial, presided over by Rajavi, and was "convicted" of not supporting the "revolution." There are many such horror stories about what happened to those who objected to the "ideological revolution."

Another "brilliant" tactic suggested by Rajavi after armed demonstrations did not topple the Islamic Republic was to demand every member kill seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps every single week, hence the tactic's name: "seven-seven." He predicted that if this were achieved, the regime would topple. That also did not go anywhere, but resulted only in more deaths for the MKO membership in Iran. Rajavi thus had to turn to the sole reliable ally that he could find, Saddam Hussein.

A 'historic flight' and formation of the National Liberation Army

In June 1986, Rajavi and his team wore out their welcome in France and were forced to leave. Employing its usual Goebbels-style propaganda, the MKO portrayed Rajavi's departure as a "historic flight for peace and freedom." In reality, it turned out to be nothing but a flight for committing treason against the Iranian nation, which was still involved in a savage war with Iraq, and leading to more bloodshed among MKO supporters. Hussein greeted Rajavi in Iraq by hosting the type of ceremony that is usually accorded to a head of state. After the ceremony, Rajavi visited the shrine of Imam Hussein, Shiism's Third Imam, grandson of the Prophet, and a most revered figure in Iran, and declared that he was continuing the Imam's path. A few thousand MKO supporters were also summoned to Iraq. Hussein provided Rajavi with weapons that the Iraqi army had captured from Iranian forces, as well as some old Soviet-made arms.

Thus Rajavi formed the National Liberation Army (NLA) in June 1987. He appointed his wife as the commander and ordered the MKO members still in Iran to move to the Iraqi province of Kurdistan to receive military training, so that they could return to Iran prepared to carry out operations. In reality, the goal was to indoctrinate the members in the group's new ideology, so that they would not leave the MKO. Altogether, the NLA had about 10,000 mostly ill-trained or untrained fighters. Rajavi first declared that the NLA would liberate Iran, an obviously ludicrous claim. After all, Rajavi's well-armed patron, Saddam Hussein, whose armed forces were equipped with 5,000 modern tanks and several hundred fighter aircraft had not been able to achieve that goal. What could a ragtag army of a few thousand ill-equipped fighters hope to accomplish? Rajavi then claimed that if the NLA entered Iran at the right time, the people would rise up and help the MKO and its army topple the government. The sad truth is that the MKO members believed Rajavi once again.

At the same time, Iraq was savagely attacking Iranian cities with missiles and bombers and Iranian troops with chemical weapons (the West raised no objection to this). This did not sit well with the Iranian people. It was clear that the MKO was in full collaboration with Iran's bloody enemy -- yet another blow to an organization that was supposed to liberate Iran and bring democracy to the nation. Like everything else that Rajavi has done, the NLA turned out to be a farce. It was beaten badly in the only substantial military operation that it carried out.

Operation Eternal Light or Operation Trap?

Khomeini's acceptance of U.N. Resolution 598, which called for a ceasefire with Iraq, was a big jolt to Rajavi. He had claimed repeatedly that Khomeini would never accept the ceasefire, because that would end his regime. He thus felt that his one chance was to attack Iran right then, when the nation was worn out. Immediately after the ceasefire went into effect, the NLA attacked Iran from Iraq in an operation it called Amaliyat-e Forough-e Javidaan (Operation Eternal Light), but which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps referred to as Amaliyat-e Mersaad (Operation Trap). The NLA forces were initially allowed to penetrate Iran and even take over two border towns. But then they were trapped (hence the Guards' name for the operation) and defeated easily. The NLA had heavy losses -- at least 2,000 and perhaps many more according to some sources. One leading figure who was killed was Ali Zarkesh, former commander of the MKO forces in Iran. There was speculation that Zarkesh was in fact killed by a MKO member on Rajavi's order. The operation was so feeble that Tehran thought for some time that it was merely the prelude to a real attack.

To justify the utter defeat, Rajavi claimed that the MKO members were not pure enough to deserve victory. He never admitted explicitly that the operation was a total failure and should never have been launched in the first place. But, as usual, he also took credit for himself by declaring, "The blood of those martyred has insured the future of the Mojahedin."

Bani Sadr recently said that when Rajavi was asked why he launched the operation when it was obvious to everyone that there was no hope for success, he replied, "The war with Iraq had ended, and the liberals were going to come to power in Iran. We would have been burnt by the developments." Thus thousands were killed so that Rajavi would not feel like he had been isolated and marginalized.

Execution of political prisoners in 1988 and another failed prediction

Operation Eternal Light provided another excuse for the Islamic Republic to execute a large number of political prisoners during the summer of 1988. Evidence indicates that before the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq went into effect and the NLA attacks, the Islamic Republic was already thinking about eliminating most, if not all, of the political prisoners in the country. Khomeini had ordered the formation of a secret commission to look into executing the MKO prisoners and secretly authorized their deaths. But certainly, the attacks by the NLA helped the Islamic Republic to "justify" what was truly a crime against humanity. Over 4,500 political prisoners were executed during the summer of 1988, about 75 percent of them MKO members and sympathizers. I have already written about the executions, and thus will not repeat the details here.

Rajavi always predicted that once Khomeini left the scene, "the remnants of the Khomeini regime" would quickly fall. That did not happen. The ayatollah passed away on June 3, 1989, and there was a peaceful transition of power from him to Khamenei. The MKO was totally depleted and demoralized as a result of Operation Eternal Light, and could not play any role in the new era opened up by Khomeini's death. If there was any power struggle -- and there was one behind the scenes -- it was inside Iran and the MKO was totally sidelined.

Helping Saddam repress Kurdish rebellion and targeting Khatami

Another disaster caused by Rajavi was his position regarding the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, sparked by Saddam Hussein's army invasion and occupation of Kuwait. The attack on Kuwait was clearly a war of aggression and if Rajavi had any political sense at all, he would have ordered the MKO members to leave Iraq, especially once a worldwide coalition formed against Hussein. (Whether the war on Iraq by the United States and its allies was justified is not the subject of this article.) But Rajavi kept his NLA in Iraq and did not move his headquarters. He was still fantasizing about "liberating" Iran with his ragtag and now utterly demoralized "army," while his patron, Hussein, was being beaten badly by the coalition forces.

At the end of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south rebelled against Hussein. They were encouraged by the George H.W. Bush administration, although when they did rise up, Bush refused to help them. Hussein used Rajavi's NLA in Operation Morvarid (Pearl) to crush the Kurdish rebels in the north in March 1991. The NLA's old tanks were used to destroy Kurdish villages and kill thousands of civilians, acts condemned by Human Rights Watch. It is believed that the NLA was also used to put down the Shiites' uprising in southern Iraq.

The NLA finally disappeared when the United States State Department listed the MKO as a terrorist organization in 1997, followed by Britain, and then by the European Union in 2002. The MKO has since been taken off the E.U. list.

Any political opening in Iran has always been dreaded by Rajavi. He knows that if there is any opening, his cult will be more isolated than ever. So when Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election in 1997 in a landslide, a victory that most interpreted as a firm "no" by the nation to Khamenei's presumed choice, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, the MKO and Rajavi were shocked. Thus, the target was no longer Khomeini, to whom Rajavi always compared himself. (Khomeini mockingly said of Rajavi in 1979, "The boy calls himself the leader.") The target was not even Khamenei, who controlled most of the levers of power at that point, but the mild-mannered, open-minded, reformist president who had never been implicated in any crime or corruption. From then on the slogan shouted by the MKO supporters in any gathering, in their radio and television broadcasts, and in their publications was "Death to Khatami." That only demonstrated once again -- if there was any need for such a demonstration -- how misguided the MKO supporters are and how they are manipulated by Rajavi. It was, of course, Khatami and his limited reforms that first led to the student uprising in July 1999, and then to the Green Movement of 2009, which has become the most potent opposition to the Islamic Republic.

Maintaining Camp Ashraf in the post-Saddam era

After the United States and Britain invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, the MKO signed a capitulation treaty with the United States and was disarmed. The NLA that was supposed to "liberate" Iran simply disappeared. Maryam Rejavi, the unelected "President-Elect of the Resistance" was dispatched to France once again to resume her comfortable life there.

Masoud Rajavi simply disappeared. There is all sort of speculation about his whereabouts, ranging from Jordan and Saudi Arabia even to a U.S. base in Qatar. No one, with the exception of his wife, knows where the "ideological leader" is.

Many countries have offered to take in the remaining MKO members who live in Camp Ashraf, but Rajavi has refused to allow them to leave. Why? Because he still wants to use them as a sign of his power, still dreams of coming to power, and presumably thinks that keeping Camp Ashraf is his bargaining chip. In a recent speech to his "National Council of Resistance of Iran" in Camp Ashraf and broadcast by the MKO television channel, Simaa-ye Azadi (Face of Freedom), Rajavi recounted a conversation that he supposedly had with an Iraqi official. He said that the official had told him that the people who lived in Camp Ashraf had no well-defined legal stature, meaning that they had not asked for asylum and they were not Iraqi citizens either. Rajavi then said, "Get lost. We got our stature from Imam Hussein." So, at the height of his isolation and powerlessness, he still behaves as if everyone is his subject, he is the Supreme Leader of not just the MKO, but the rest of the world, and the only one he has to respond to is God, if even Him.

Rajavi believes that with the help of neoconservatives he will finally come to power, which is why he insists on keeping the Mojahedin in Camp Ashraf. Over the past several months, six conferences sponsored by the neoconservatives and their allies have been held in Europe and the United States to prop up the MKO as the leading alternative to the Islamic Republic. In addition to such infamous neoconservative figures as John Bolton, others including former National Security Advisor General James L. Jones, former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, former Energy Secretary and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson have also spoken in support of the MKO and its unelected "President-Elect" Maryam Rajavi. The Rajavis have apparently convinced them that their supporters in Camp Ashraf, together with the "Iranian people" whom they believe will surely rise up in support of the MKO -- exactly the way they were supposed to when the MKO launched Operation Eternal Light -- will be enough to topple the Islamic Republic. Thus, as I said, keeping the MKO members in Camp Ashraf helps Rajavi keep alive his hallucination about coming to power to Iran. But the net result will only be more bloodshed for the MKO members, and possibly for the Iranian nation.

Every news program on Simaa-ye Azadi swiftly reveals that, when it comes to Iraq's internal politics, the MKO acts as a political party allied with Ayad Allawi, former Iraqi prime minister and Nouri al-Maliki's main foe. During the negotiations for the formation of Iraq's government in the aftermath of last year's elections, Simaa-ye Azadi broadcast nonstop propaganda in support of Allawi. Now, put yourself in al-Maliki's shoes: Imagine a non-Iraqi group that collaborated with Saddam Hussein is residing in your country, refusing to seek political asylum but also refusing to leave. It is the enemy of your friend, and the friend of your enemy. What would you do? This, of course, does not justify the crime that happened at Camp Ashraf, but blind condemnation of al-Maliki without due attention to what Rajavi and his cult have been doing is not rational.

Self-immolation and the culture of a cult

Given the foregoing, which represents only the tip of the iceberg of what Rajavi has done to his followers in the MKO, there is only one conclusion: the MKO is no longer a political organization by any stretch of imagination, but just a cult in which the MKO members and supporters worship the Rajavis as God's representatives on earth, and are not willing to consider what they have done to them, to the MKO, and to the Iranian nation. They blindly follow the orders given to them by the couple.

Consider this example: on June 17, 2003, Maryam Rajavi was arrested by the French counter-terrorism force, together with 165 MKO members in 13 offices. The police also confiscated $3 million in cash in her residence. The next day, three MKO supporters set themselves on fire in Paris to protest the arrest. One of them, a woman, died of her burns. A man tried to do the same in Switzerland, while another was involved in a self-immolation in London. If these are not the acts of cult members -- akin to what followers of Hassan ibn Sabbah or adherents of David Koresh's Branch Davidian religious cult did -- then what could possibly qualify?

So let the unelected, derided "President-Elect of the Resistance" send messages of protest from her comfortable home in Europe and ask for help. The fact is the culprit, the person ultimately responsible for the utterly tragic fate of the MKO members, is the man who turned a legitimate political/military organization that represented a mass movement prior to June 1981 into a cult whose members serve according to his whims.

And finally, compare Rajavi with Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. One flees the nation and sacrifices young people to his caprices and thirst for power for 30 years, while the other two stay in Iran and continue their struggle under the most difficult conditions, knowing full well from personal experience that the ruling group can do anything to them that they wish, including murdering them, and yet remain loyal to the promises that they made to the nation. In fact, the only reason that they have not disappeared into oblivion is the popular support that they have. Eat your hearts out "President-Elect and Dear Ideological Leader of the Resistance."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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