THERE IS so much tragedy in Iraq that some stories go underreported - eclipsed by other negative news. This one requires attention:
Inside Iraq, 20 kilometers west of the Iranian border and 60 kilometers northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province, stands Camp Ashraf where members of the Iranian opposition - known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq - have lived for more than two decades. Today, some 3,500 residents live in Ashraf.
In another bizarre turn in Iran-Iraq relations, these arch-opponents of Iran's theocratic regime, who are now a valued part of an Iraqi community, find themselves in danger of expulsion. Caught in a geopolitical quandary, they are being told by Iraqi officials that their refuge is no longer safe.
The MEK has a controversial image in the Middle East and in the West. The group's determination to end the rule of religious zealots in Iran over the past 20 years led to its vilification by the United States, which, in 1997 branded the MEK a "foreign terrorist organization" - a designation that has continued even though the group has given up its weapons and abandoned any militaristic path.
The MEK's demands for a moderate, secular, and democratic Iran put it at odds with the mullahs of Tehran. But, in a strange twist of fate, the MEK is now at odds with the US government, and the Iraqi government.
Regardless of one's opinion of the MEK, the residents of Ashraf are political refugees, protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention. They are considered "protected persons" by US and Coalition forces in Iraq - a designation reserved for noncombatants - not militants or terrorists. The Iraqi government's threats to the status of the MEK is unlawful and unjust. Even the Iraqi constitution provides protection for dissidents until or unless a legitimate court determines otherwise.
Beyond the legal issues surrounding asylum, the MEK people enjoy popular support inside Iraq, particularly in Diyala province, where they have worked to promote reconciliation between the Sunni and Shi'ite communities. Millions of Iraqis have signed petitions calling for the MEK members to stay in Iraq.
Ironically, the recent signals by some Iraqi officials that MEK members are no longer welcome comes at a time when European governments are positively reassessing the organization. Last year, a British court ruled that the organization must be removed from the British government's list of terrorist organizations.
An extensive review by a three-judge panel especially empowered to decide cases involving the delisting of designated terrorist groups said the failure of the British government to lift the terrorist designation was "perverse" because "the only belief that a reasonable decision maker could have honestly entertained" is that "the PMOI no longer satisfies any of the criteria necessary for the maintenance of their proscription" as a terrorist organization. Even US military officials privately concede that the MEK has been a valuable source of intelligence regarding Iran's clandestine nuclear program and its meddling in Iraq.
The Iraqi government is caving in to pressure from Iran to make life difficult for the MEK. There is a new and growing alliance between radical elements in both Iran and Iraq, who do not want freedom and democracy to spread. But the US government should not fall into the trap of marginalizing the MEK to appease Iran - and in the process, lose a vital source of intelligence and an ally for the promotion of democracy in the greater Middle East.
American policymakers must transcend old ways of thinking, and not be so consumed by fears of potential terrorists that they end up sacrificing potential allies in the struggle against terrorism. The Middle East makes for strange bedfellows, and Western leaders have not always chosen friends wisely. But this is one occasion where the West has a clear opportunity to avoid ending up on the wrong side of history by hearing the call of the MEK for protection before it's too late.
Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq is a member of the Iraqi Parliament. He heads the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue.