BAGHDAD – Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged the Iraqi government on Friday to “show restraint” after security forces stormed an Iranian opposition refugee camp that had long existed under the protection of the U.S. and its coalition partners.
“We have been monitoring the situation at Camp Ashraf in Diyala,” said Gates after a visit with American troops in Iraq. “We are very concerned with reports of deaths, of injuries resulting from this morning’s clash between Iraqi Security Forces and the MEK. I urge the Iraqi government to show restraint and live up to their commitments to treat the residents of Ashraf in accordance with Iraqi law and their international obligations.”
Gates said no American troops were involved in the attacks, but that medical assistance was offered.
The exiled MEK — also known as the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran — was given refuge in Iraq more than 20 years ago by the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, and has long been a thorn in the side of the Shiite dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The U.S. took responsibility for the camp’s security in 2003, but handed over control to the Iraqis in 2009. 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 group has had a checkered history with the U.S. — it backed the 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran — and while it still is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, it has not been linked to any terrorist activity since it renounced violence in 2001.
Camp resident Shahriar Kia claimed that at least 28 residents were killed — including six women — and more than 300 injured in the alleged attack. Those casualty figures could not be confirmed since access to the camp is controlled by Iraqi security forces.
“This is a massacre, a catastrophe,” said Behzad Saffari, who has lived at Ashraf for nine years and acts as the camp’s legal adviser, the Associated Press reported. “They came inside the camp and attacked people with grenades and tear gas, and then they started to shoot people. When people saw the attack was about to begin, they lined up to defend their homes.”
Top Iraqi government officials vehemently denied any fatalities.
“One hundred members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran attacked our security and military forces,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the Associated Press. “Our forces did not use weapons. The situation is calm now.”
But a hospital official in Baqouba, Diyala’s capital, reported three people were killed and 13 wounded in the pre-dawn offensive. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said five Iraqi soldiers also were injured.
In a statement Thursday, the U.S. Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents, urged the Obama Administration Thursday to intervene and prevent attacks on the Iranian refugees.
The leader of the Paris-based group, Mariam Rajavi, reportedly sent a letter to President Obama on Friday morning claiming that six of the dead were women and that they were either shot or crushed under vehicles, the Wall Street Journal reported.
In the letter, Rajavi insisted that the U.S. remains responsible for the safety of the 3,400 people in the camp, based on agreements established after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Journal reported.
“I appeal to you to act upon the U.S. government’s commitments and responsibilities and prevent the continuation of war crimes,” Rajavi reportedly wrote.
In an interview Friday, Iraqi Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan said he ordered the incursion to curb two days of exiles hurling stones at troops and throwing themselves in front of soldiers’ trucks. He said the uprising began after Iraqi troops starting out units that are stationed nearby.
Camp residents painted a far more dire picture of the scene, and supplied video purportedly taken early Friday that showed gunfire and military bulldozers approaching the camp, and Humvees flying the Iraqi flag chasing down nearly some 100 stone-throwing masked people in an open area, the Associated Press reported. At least one resident is seen hit by a Humvee.
The video also shows at least six people lying on a the ground, and a dozen of blood-soaked men being treated by doctors.
Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin contributed to this report.