BAGHDAD — The women formed a human chain while the men chanted, confronting Iraqi troops moving into their compound. Gunfire rang out, and the soldiers waded in with batons, wooden bats and automatic weapons.
By the end, officials said, 11 Iranian exiles were dead — shot, beaten or run over by military vehicles.
Throughout the confrontation, American soldiers who once protected the Iranian opposition group stood by. According to U.S officials, they had no legal authority to intervene. One video taken by the exiles even shows soldiers getting into a white SUV and rolling up their windows as the bloodied men plead for help.
The deadly melee at Camp Ashraf, the base of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, provides a glaring example of what can go wrong as the U.S. military scales back and the Shiite-led Iraqi government flexes its muscles.
The U.S. military guarded the camp since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 under an agreement that made its 3,400 residents “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions. The military stopped observing the agreement after a new security accord with the Baghdad government took effect in January, U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Frayne said.
Responsibility for the camp then passed to the Iraqi government, which promised not to use force against the group. A small contingent of U.S. military police still monitors the camp, but the military said they were under orders not to intervene in the July 28 confrontation.
“We could not become decisively engaged with a situation that really is up to the sovereign Iraqi government to settle in a peaceful manner as they have assured us that they would do,” a senior U.S. military official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Even in a situation that allowed engagement, we didn’t have nearly the amount of forces present to jump in the middle of this fray,” he said.
Iraqi officials said they were trying to establish a police station at the camp. And there are numerous other issues on which the Iraqi government could go its own way — like the fate of anti-al-Qaida Sunni militias, which are strongly supported by the U.S. but now seem to get less backing from Iraq’s Shiite leaders, or the multiple disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdish north, which the U.S. has sought to mollify lest they explode into violence.
The bloodshed brought rare criticism by Washington of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. But U.S. officials tried to balance it with the larger policy goal of handing over greater responsibility to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki while U.S. forces reduce their presence.
“Iraq was trying to extend its sovereignty to Camp Ashraf. We understood what they were trying to do. They did not do it well,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington two weeks after the raid.
Camp Ashraf and the presence of the Iranian exile group have long been a source of friction between Washington and Baghdad. For years, Iraq’s Shiite-led government has wanted to remove the group because of its past ties to Saddam. Iran, a close Shiite ally of Baghdad, has also been pressing for the expulsion of the group, which seeks the overthrow of Tehran’s clerical rulers.
The Iraqi treatment of the exiles could also be an indicator that Iran’s influence in Baghdad is growing as Washington’s wanes, though Iraqi officials staunchly deny the raid was at Tehran’s behest.
“If you want to know how independent the government of Iraq is from the Islamic Republic of Iran, watch what happens to the people of Ashraf,” said Raymond Tanter, president of the Washington-based Iran Policy Group and a member of the National Security Council in the Reagan administration.
Baghdad “wanted to establish its independence from the United States and possibly was motivated to show that independence by cracking down on Ashraf,” he said, pointing out the raid coincided with a Baghdad visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The People’s Mujahedeen is deeply controversial. Critics call it a cult with an ideology mixing Marxism, secularism, an obsession with martyrdom and near adoration of its leaders. The U.S. considers it a terrorist organization, albeit one that has provided the Americans with intelligence on Iran. The European Union removed it from its terror list this year.
The group – also known by its Farsi name the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq – is the militant wing of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran. It carried out a series of bloody bombings and assassinations in Iran in the 1980s, though it says it renounced violence in 2001.
The MEK fought alongside Saddam’s forces during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, and Saddam set up a number of bases for them – including Camp Ashraf, their last remaining foothold in Iraq, located in a barren desert stretch north of Baghdad, 50 miles from the Iranian border.
After Saddam fell, U.S. troops took control of Camp Ashraf and disarmed its fighters, confining them to the 30-square-mile compound. In return, the military signed the agreement with the camp’s residents giving them protected status.
The exiles transformed Camp Ashraf into an oasis of well-kept gardens, water fountains and palm trees along marked-out streets, where the residents – including 900 women – live in barracks-like housing segregated by sex. Morsch, 58, of Bucyrus, Kan., recalls how American soldiers guarding the camp got to know the residents well, sharing meals and inviting each other to celebrations.
The government has barred media visits to the camp since the raid.
The Iraqi government says it was exerting its right to establish a police station in Camp Ashraf and blames the violence on the resistance by Iranian exiles. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the AP on Monday that the forces entering to set up the station were met by “demonstrations with people wielding sticks, swords and knives.”
The U.S. military sent a medical team into the camp two days after the raid and 19 people were transported to an American hospital with serious injuries. Iraqi forces also detained 36 men accused of violently resisting the raid, prompting a hunger strike by some camp residents demanding their release.
The fate of Camp Ashraf’s residents remains up in the air.
The Iraqi government has forwarded several proposals, including sending them to third countries other than Iran, where they would face possible execution. “The world has to help us find a place for them,” al-Dabbagh said, reiterating the promise to treat them humanely and not to forcibly expel them. “We cannot accept the presence of such an organization inside Iraq.”
The People’s Mujahedeen insists that the protected status agreement has not expired because of a clause saying it is valid until the situation is resolved. The group has called on the Americans to reassert control over the camp until another arrangement could be made, such as the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers.
“Apart from this legal argument … the point is that people have been killed by the Iraqis,” said Behzad Saffari, a legal adviser at Camp Ashraf. “They have broken their promise to the Americans, so naturally they are not trustworthy to continue with this situation.”
Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.