A change of heart on Iraq?

There was at least a little corner of agreement between some retired partisans right outside the White House on Friday. But it was nothing to smile about, for starters because the scenes they’d come out to deplore are so gory.

Former senator Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), former representative Patrick J. Kennedy (D-Mass.), former Republican homeland security secretary Tom Ridge and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) spoke to the crowd of rain-ponchoed Iranian dissidents repeating the unlikely chant “President Obama take action, ensure liberty protection.”

One by one, the formers all said Obama should get a lot tougher on his esteemed current guest, Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is in town to ask for more help in beating back al-Qaeda-linked groups from the same United States of America that he couldn’t wait to be rid of when we pulled out of Iraq two years ago.

Though Obama ran in 2008 on ending that war, it’s gone on without us, and violence has spiked again recently.

The motley speakers at the rally all zeroed in on the brutality of a Sept. 1 attack on a longtime trouble spot, Camp Ashraf, northeast of Baghdad, formerly the paramilitary base of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK. An opponent of the Iranian regime, the MEK was on the U.S. list of terrorist groups until September 2012, some years after it had renounced violence and promised to close Camp Ashraf, although about 100 members refused to leave.

Thousands of MEK members were invited to Iraq by Saddam Hussein, but they are also considered terrorists by the current, Shiite-led Iraqi government, and by many ordinary Iraqis who remember their violence on behalf of Hussein.

Every one of the prominent Democrats and Republicans who spoke on behalf of the MEK has in the past been criticized for cashing fat checks from the group.

The Associated Press reported the 52 deaths in Camp Ashraf this way: “Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, confirmed that some camp residents were killed. He said a preliminary investigation suggests they died as a result of infighting among camp residents, and denied that Iraqi forces were involved. Previous Iraqi raids on the camp, including one in April 2011, claimed dozens of lives. The acting U.N. envoy to Iraq, Gyorgy Busztin, condemned the events at Camp Ashraf but did not assign blame.”

Well, not so Tom Ridge, who banged on the lectern as he banged on the point that the United States had given its word that it would see to it that those in the camp would be protected, and had not kept that promise: “As someone who wore the uniform a long, long time ago,’’ said Ridge, a decorated Vietnam vet, “we gave our word!”

“I implore the president,’’ he added, to make any aid dependent on the safe passage of these MEK stuck in Iraq, including seven who’ve been taken hostage. “If you think about how much they trusted us” and had been proven wrong, he said, “your stomach should be in knots.”

When he walked away from the microphone, there were tears in his eyes. “Some of us feel responsible,’’ he said in an interview. As a member of the Bush administration when we invaded the country? No, he said: “I was the secretary of homeland security when we went in, but that was not a calculation.” For the six years that Americans oversaw the camp, he noted, “nothing happened” to its inhabitants.

Purported footage of the September attack shows armed men with black scarves tied over much of their faces walking into the camp from several directions, though it’s ringed round-the-clock by Iraqi security. The graphic video shows people being shot, and lying in pools of their own blood in the camp hospital. At one point, the person taking the footage dropped the camera. “Because she was killed,” Ridge said.

Aren’t unprovoked attacks against former terrorists, if there is such a thing and that’s what they are, still just as wrong?

Yes, and an Oct. 29 letter to Obama from six U.S. senators with many other concerns about our Iraq policy also mentioned the hated Camp Ashraf. “Attacks against the residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq are reprehensible,’’ said the letter from Sens. Carl Levin, John McCain, Robert Menendez, Bob Corker, James M. Inhofe and Lindsey O. Graham, “especially because the Iraqi government pledged to protect these people. Prime Minister Maliki must understand that actions such as these need to stop.”

Some of the speakers on Friday were further off the political stage than others. Torricelli left politics mid-campaign in 2002 after allegations that he’d taken illegal contributions from a businessman connected to North Korea. Later, he legally but controversially distributed his leftover campaign funds to politicians in a position to help his lobbying clients.

“Prime Minister Maliki has blood on his hands,’’ he yelled in front of the White House, “and Barack Obama should say it to his face!’’

A few yards away, Newt Gingrich was chatting with Patrick Kennedy. “We’re trying to ruin each other’s reputations,’’ Kennedy joked.

The former speaker said he wouldn’t advise that Obama come right out and accuse his visitor of murder, but “what he could say is, ‘You have to find and release the hostages or we’re not going to sell you any new equipment.’ ”

His overarching concern, he said, is that Iraq is “dissolving” into a place that’s “ungovernable.”

“We really dramatically underestimated how hard this would be, and I plead guilty,” all these years and lives and billions later.

Some Iraqis were also in the crowd, including a 25-year-old Christian who came from Arizona, where he’s been living since he was 16, because he wants the president to think about the treatment of religious minorities in his country — the one we were supposed to have liberated. “Now we’re again seeing dictatorship,’’ in his view, “and at least in ’03 we had security.”

Later, a pool report after the White House meeting said Maliki and Obama had of course spent most of their time together discussing Syria, counterterrorism efforts and the Iranian nuclear issue. Maliki also told reporters American companies should invest in Iraq, and assured them his government is trying hard to be inclusive.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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