AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
BAQUBA, Iraq — At least three people were killed Friday when Iraqi forces clashed with an Iranian opposition group, a security official said, but the rebels claimed 31 of its members died in a full military assault.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, visiting American troops in northern Iraq, expressed concern at reports of casualties. He urged Iraqi authorities to show restraint.
Major Hassan al-Tamimi of the Iraqi army in Baquba, capital of central Diyala province, said the armed forces clashed with stone-throwing crowds at the Camp Ashraf base of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, or PMOI.
“The clashes started at around 4:40 am (0140 GMT) as the army was taking positions inside a cemetery in Ashraf,” Tamimi said. “The latest toll is three people killed and 27 wounded, among them 13 members of the security forces.”
The National Council of Resistance, whose main component is PMOI, said in Paris that 31 of its members were killed and 300 wounded, 19 of them critically in a full-fledged military assault on its base about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Baghdad.
“What is urgent is the evacuation of the wounded to a US hospital or to a foreign country, Switzerland, for example,” a spokesman for the group said, adding that Iraqi authorities had imposed a “medical blockade” of Ashraf.
“I am very concerned with the report of deaths and injuries. I urge the Iraqi government to show restraint,” Gates told reporters when asked about the reports during a visit to the Camp Marez US military base in northern Iraq.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s media advisor told AFP that Baghdad would no longer tolerate an organisation that had been involved in “terrorist activity and harms relations with neighbours.”
Ali Musawi said Maliki had asked European Union ambassadors to “accept them (PMOI) and put them wherever they like, because Iraq cannot bear this any longer. It harms our relations with our countries,” he said in a clear reference to Iran.
The European Union removed the PMOI from its list of terrorist organisation in 2009, but the organisation remains on a similar US State Department’s list.
Iran considers PMOI members enemies of the state, and has jailed or executed many members of the outlawed group.
PMOI bases in Iraq have always been a thorn in Tehran-Baghdad relations.
“If they (PMOI) remain here, this issue will become an excuse for other countries to intervene in our internal affairs,” Musawi said, adding that security forces had intervened on behalf of the judiciary to reclaim private lands.
The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq also issued a statement, saying its mandate included “promotion of human rights in Iraq.”
“UNAMI calls for restraint and respect for humanitarian and human rights and urges the Iraqi authorities to provide humanitarian assistance in this regard and access to medical services.”
Video footage the rebel group sent to AFP showed soldiers in riot gear rushing on foot and in vehicles into the camp, and some apparently wounded Mujahedeen members being carried away.
The authenticity of the video could not be verified.
A source at Baquba’s main hospital said the facility had received three bodies.
The PMOI has about 3,500 members housed at Camp Ashraf.
A leftwing and Islamic movement, it was founded in 1965 in opposition to the shah of Iran and has subsequently fought to oust the clerical regime that took power in Tehran after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
The group set up Camp Ashraf in the 1980s — when late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime was at war with the Islamic republic — as a base to operate against Tehran.
It was disarmed following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.