Rendell, Ridge ask U.S. to help Iranian opposition group

Posted: September 05, 2013

In an impassioned letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, 13 influential political and government officials and military figures demanded Tuesday that more than 3,000 members of a controversial Iranian opposition group be immediately airlifted to temporary haven.

The demand was made in response to reports that 52 members of the Mujaheddin Khalq, or MEK, were killed Sunday in an attack on the Ashraf refugee camp about 40 miles north of Baghdad.

"We were fearful of this day," said Tom Ridge, who was the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and served as Pennsylvania's governor from 1995 to 2001. "The sense of urgency is really a culmination of a series of events over the past three years."

He called the deaths "political assassinations" carried out by Iraqi forces in concert with Iran and said the United States had a moral and legal obligation to rescue the remaining members of the group.

Ridge belongs to a group of powerful men who have been paid by the MEK for the last few years to speak out publicly on behalf of the exiles. The group includes former Gov. Ed Rendell, former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a former NATO commander, a former FBI director, and a former U.S. attorney general, among others.

They all signed the letter, condemning the attack and chastising the State Department and the United Nations for reneging on promises to protect the MEK.

"We're not saying give them permanent citizenship," Rendell said in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, "but offer them temporary refuge. . . . We could take them to any one of our air bases. We could take them to Guantanamo."

The MEK has a complicated history. The group, which some have described as a cult, has fiercely opposed the fundamentalist leadership in Iran for 30 years. Until last year, the State Department included it on the list of state-sponsored terrorist organizations.

Ridge, Rendell, and other supporters say that the MEK has provided important intelligence to American troops in the region. Recently, under pressure from the Iraqi and American governments, the exiles agreed to move from their well-established encampment at Ashraf to a site near the Baghdad airport. In exchange, each of the 3,400 exiles was given a document from the U.S. government certifying "protected persons status," and assuring their safety.

That site, known as Camp Liberty, has been repeatedly targeted by militants in deadly rocket attacks. About 3,000 MEK members remain there, waiting for the U.N. to resettle them abroad, said Ridge.

Only 100 or so were left at Ashraf before Sunday's killings.

"All of them were defenseless," the letter to Kerry read.

Rendell estimates that he has received between $150,000 and $200,000 over the last few years for speaking engagements at which he urges support for the group. Ridge would not say how much he had been paid, but he and Rendell say their efforts following the recent killings are voluntary.

That all the men who signed the letter have profited financially from their relationship with MEK is irrelevant, Rendell added.

"What difference does it make? We gave our word we were going to protect these people? These are human beings. Good God," he said. It would be callous, he said, not to respond when 52 unarmed refugees are murdered, he said.

Rendell acknowledged that innocents are being slaughtered elsewhere around the world. But, he said, "the people who are being massacred in other countries did not give up their weapons on the explicit promise from the American government that we would protect them."

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or or @dribbenonphilly.

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