Originally published on Ashcam
By Amir Basiri*
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the first deadly attack by Iraqi security forces against Ashraf City, located in Iraq’s Diyala Province and home to thousands of Iranian refugees. Although the raid on the camp was perpetrated by the Iraqi government at the behest of the Iranian regime, the wrong decision and actions – or lack thereof – of the US government played a pivotal role in facilitating the tragedy that occurred five years ago on this day.
Ashraf, which had been inhabited by Iranian dissidents striving for an end to tyranny and suppression in their country, had been a perennial thorn in side of the Iranian regime, and a beacon of hope for millions of Iranian people living under the iron-fisted rule of the mullahs in Tehran. As an Ashrafi, I was proud to be part of a community that symbolised an Iran founded on the principles of freedom, democracy and equality – a nuclear-free Iran that would peacefully coexist with its neighbours in the region and all the nations of the world.
In short, Ashraf was everything the Iranian regime wasn’t, so the mullahs seized every opportunity to strike at Ashraf and make life unbearable for its inhabitants.
After the invasion of Iraq by US-led forces in 2003, the residents of Ashraf were recognised as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The US government pledged to protect us in accordance with international laws. Back then, I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of that promise.
On 28 July 2009, I found myself at the city’s northern gates, along with scores of other residents who had gathered in a peaceful sit-in after hearing of the presence of large contingents of Iraqi forces at the outskirts of the city. We had been holding banners calling on the Iraqi government to end its suppressive measures against us, and on the US to uphold its commitment to the safety and security of the residents.
This wasn’t the first time that Iraqi forces were acting in a hostile manner toward the residents. Since the start of the year, when US forces handed over the security at Ashraf to the Iraqi government, there had been much tension between Iraqi forces – ostensibly in charge of the city’s protection – and the residents. Until that point, however, Iraqi forces hadn’t gone further in their actions than taunts and threats.
We had had warned US authorities about the possible disastrous outcome of their decision to put Iraqi forces in charge of our protection, and we had conveyed our misgivings about the loyalties and motives of the Iraqi government, which made no secret of its alliance with the Iranian regime and its goal to make the lives of Ashrafis a living hell. In response, the US Embassy in Baghdad had assured us that the Iraqi government had committed itself to the safety and security of the residents, and would not allow us to come to any harm. Moreover, we each had in our possession an ID card that designated us as being under the protection of US military police. Above all, US forces were still present in the city, which would make it practically impossible for Iraqi forces to carry out a full-fledged attack against us.
However odd the Iraqi government’s behaviour may have seemed, therefore, I had no reason to be fearful of what was to come.
Beyond Ashraf’s northern gates was stationed a squad of American troops. They were in their full gear, lounging around under a lean-to, where their armoured vehicle was parked. A little further away was an Iraqi police car. The weather was a blistering 55 degrees Celsius.
It was early in the afternoon that we first caught sight, through the shimmering heat-haze, of a large convoy approaching the camp from the north. The vehicles were moving at high speed, trailing a large cloud of dust behind them, and before long they were upon us. I sighted a fire engine, a frontloader, and several trucks and Humvees carrying Iraqi troops.
The only obstacle between them and the city was the US armoured vehicle. But just before they reached us, as if on cue, the US troops climbed into their vehicle and rolled away. I watched in disbelief as the vehicle evacuated the scene and stopped at a few hundred feet from where the action was about to take place.
A feeling of dread came over me, and it soon became clear that something terrible was about to happen. After that, the situation quickly turned into disaster.
Without a word of warning, the Iraqi forces began their offensive. The fire truck stopped short of the gates, and the operator turned on the water cannon, launching waves of high pressure water against the residents who had gathered at the location. The force was such that those who got struck were literally washed away along with dirt and gravel, and were hurled several feet into the air.
Before I could take cover, a thick jet of water struck me square in the chest. The impact lifted me off the ground and threw me several yards back. I landed painfully on my knees and elbows and tumbled to a halt, the breath knocked from my lungs.
I dragged myself beyond the range of the fire engine and leaned against the tire of a car. Looking through the cracked lenses of my glasses, I tried to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. To the north and east, Iraqi riot police and army troops were waiting nonchalantly as the frontloader was busy tearing away a portion of the perimeter fence, creating an opening for them to infiltrate the city. To the north, the fire engine was driving away, having depleted its water reserves.
To the north and west, I could see the US soldiers had gathered on top of their vehicle and were merely watching the mayhem as it occurred.
Bruised as I was, I decided to join the crowd that gathered to protest against this illegal trespass into our home.
As the frontloader finished its job, the riot police lined up and charged into the crowd. They were wielding metal pipes and wooden clubs, and were beating the residents with wild abandon.
I soon found myself face to face with one of them. Before I could utter a word of protest, he brought down his pipe in a vicious downward swipe aimed straight at my head. Impulsively, I brought up my right hand to protect myself against the blow. The impact sent an excruciating wave of pain through my entire arm. It was all I could do to keep up my arm as the next blow landed, and the next. I later found out that my forearm was fractured in three places.
I was double-teamed as a second soldier joined the first. My right arm went limp and fell uselessly to my side after receiving a well-placed blow to the elbow, stripping me of my only means of defence.
Before I could recover, I was hit square in the back of the head. I felt the hard thud of the pipe, then the coursing agony that cost me my balance and nearly my consciousness. I lurched forward and fell to my knees. I was only half aware of what was going on around me. My vision was a blur and the sounds of clashes and yelling seemed distant. I curled myself into a ball to protect myself from the blows that would surely follow – and follow they did.
I was surrounded by soldiers, and they were hitting me with whatever they had. They punched and kicked me over and over, before someone courageously rushed into their midst and pulled me out, himself earning a few blows in the process.
I was dragged from the fray and settled against a wall where I lay in a semiconscious state before I was put in the back of a pickup truck along with two other persons, who also were badly injured. Miraculously, I was still holding on to my glasses, though the lenses were smeared with mud and blood. I wiped them with my fingers and took in the scene before me as the vehicle drove away to the hospital. The Iraqi soldiers and their Humvees were advancing into the camp at a steady pace, violently lashing out at anyone who stood in their path.
As for the US troops, they were still watching from a few hundred feet away. I knew that no help would come from that quarter, and that we had been abandoned to fend for ourselves. The Americans had turned their backs on us.
Since turning his back on the millions of protestors who participated in the 2009 uprising in Iran, this was perhaps the greatest gift that President Obama could have given to the Iranian regime.
Funny as it seems to me now, the last thing that went through my mind on that day was the passage from Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which she describes the concept of betrayal from the perspective of the story’s anonymous protagonist:
“It was like being in an elevator cut loose at the top. Falling, falling, and not knowing when you will hit.
“That was when my body succumbed to unconsciousness and everything went black.”
28 July 2009 ended in blood and fire, with Iraqi troops firing live ammunition at the residents and crushing them beneath the wheels of armoured vehicles. More of the same happened the following day.
A total of eleven residents lost their lives that day. Hundreds of others were wounded. Although they could have stopped the attack, the US forces stationed at Ashraf opted to stand idly by. They forsook all the written promises and commitments they had given to the residents of Ashraf, and allowed the Iraqi Prime Minister’s forces to beat, maim and murder them at their leisure.
The world was outraged at the crime against humanity committed by the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime, but the inaction and betrayal of US forces also became a focus of attention.
Five eventful years have passed since that fateful day, yet the images and sounds are still vivid in my mind. Merely thinking about it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Sadly, this was not a one-time experience. On 8 April 2011, Iraqi forces carried out a second raid against Ashraf City, in which they killed 36 residents. Again, I witnessed US troops deserting the camp on the eve of the attack.
On 1 September 2013, in direct coordination with the Iranian regime, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s special forces staged the third – and by far the most gruesome – massacre at Ashraf, brutally murdering 52 residents and abducting seven others. This time, the American forces didn’t even deign to show up.
Joined by the UN, the US urged us to evacuate Ashraf and move to Camp Liberty – a derelict former US military base near Baghdad International Airport – and promised that we would enjoy better protection and be spared from further attacks.
Since being transferred to Camp Liberty, we have been targeted by rocket attacks on four occasions. Fourteen detainees have lost their lives, and more than 200 have suffered wounds, in some cases grievous.
Presently, while Iraq spirals into unrest and violence, the Iranian regime and its elements in the Iraqi government continue to mount the pressure on Camp Liberty detainees and set the stage for further massacres.
Meanwhile, the US and UN have yet to deliver on the promises they made to the residents, and while President Obama dithers over how to fix the “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” he left behind, innocent lives continue to hang in the balance.
Too many lives have been lost already. It’s time for the US and UN to act before another human disaster comes to pass.
*Amir Basiri is the pen name of a former Ashraf City resident. His true identity has been concealed, at his request, due to threats received by his family in Iran.