BAGHDAD (AP) – An Iraqi raid on an Iranian opposition group’s camp north of Baghdad killed seven people, a police officer and members of the exile group said Wednesday as the standoff continued for a second day.
However, some Iraqi government officials denied any deaths in the operation in Camp Ashraf and the casualty reports could not immediately be independently verified. The camp housing members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran is located in a dangerous area and Iraqi authorities prevented reporters from gaining access on Wednesday.
About 3,500 ex-Iranian fighters and relatives live in the camp, first set up in 1986 when they helped Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, American troops disarmed the fighters and confined them to the camp.
The Americans handed over responsibility for the camp to the Iraqis to comply with a security agreement that took effect on Jan. 1 but said they would maintain a force nearby to ensure humane treatment of the Iranians. Tensions rose as the Iraqi government stepped up efforts to get the group to leave the country in a friendly gesture to close ally Iran, which considers the exiles part of a terrorist group.
Iran thanked the Iraqi government for the raid.
“Yesterday, we heard of the Iraqi government raid on Camp Ashraf,” said parliament speaker Ali Larijani. “This is appreciated, that the Iraqi government decided to clean Iraq from the dirty presence of terrorists. However, it was a late move,” he said Wednesday during an open session of parliament broadcast live on state radio.
The Iraqis had maintained a security cordon around the camp’s perimeter but a day before the raid, they said they would assume complete control. The government promised to protect the people inside.
But the move raised fears the Iraqis would move to forcibly evict the exiles, and the group’s leaders announced shortly afterward that they were willing to return to Iran if they were guaranteed immunity from prosecution. They insisted on guarantees in writing from Iran, the United States, the United Nations and Iraq.
Iraq maintained it had the right to assume control of the camp as part of measures to establish security and blamed the residents for the clashes, saying they were defying efforts to impose the law.
“The Iraqi government intends to assert its sovereignty on all sites and facilities that were controlled by foreign troops and Camp Ashraf is not an exception to this,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told AP Television News. “The Iraqi government is dealing with members of this camp in a humane way.”
“The Iraqi government doesn’t intend to clash with members of this camp, but it will enforce the law decisively,” he added.
The U.S. also consider the Iranian group a terrorist organization. But it has provided the Americans with intelligence on Iran and the U.S. military previously signed an agreement with the militia, promising members would be treated as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Senior U.S. legislators urged Iraq not to use force against the camp’s residents, saying the Iraqi government had promised to guarantee the physical security and protection of Ashraf residents following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area.
“The Iraqi government must live up to its commitment to ensure the continued well-being of those living in Ashraf and prevent their involuntary return to Iran,” said a joint statement by Reps. Howard Berman and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The U.S. military distanced itself from the raid, saying it was not given any notice about the action. Members of the Iranian group claimed that American soldiers observed the clashes but did not intervene.
“I know of no advice or assistance that was requested of U.S. forces,” Army Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby told reporters Wednesday at the military headquarters on the western outskirts of Baghdad.
Jacoby stopped short of saying no U.S. soldiers were present, saying only that there was a small base in the vicinity of the camp and that soldiers there “are always observing and taking a look at what’s going on.”
“There is no participation in (Iraqi security force) activities, no advice or assistance requested of U.S. forces,” he said.
The People’s Mujahedeen claimed the Iraqi forces opened fire and beat residents with batons, killing seven men, wounding 385 and arresting 31. Residents said they were holding a hunger strike to protest the action.
An Iraqi police officer at the scene, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, confirmed seven were killed.
However, the governor of Diyala province, which includes the camp, denied any deaths occurred and said residents threw stones at the Iraqi security forces to provoke them into retaliating in a bid to gain sympathy.
“Iraqi police wanted to enter the camp according to an agreement but they were confronted by camp members who demonstrated at the gate and threw stones,” Gov. Abdul-Nasir Billah said in a statement. “That forced the security forces to use tear gas that caused breathing problems for some camp members as well as police.”
Associated Press employees in Diyala province contributed to this report.