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Who are the MKO and why did Iraqi forces storm their camp?

Iraq flexes its muscles at Camp Ashraf and shows military independence from America, as the Iranian exile group's long strange trip draws to a close.

By Staff writer / July 29, 2009

Iraqi security forces today violently wrested control of the sprawling compound of an exiled Iranian opposition movement, killing at least seven of its residents in the process.

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The raid was the latest assertion of total military independence by Iraqi forces from US control. Video of the event, with Iraqi soldiers delivering severe beatings to unarmed residents, adds evidence of brutal tactics within the new Iraqi Army.

But it also may be the beginning of the end of the one the strangest sideshows of the entire Iraq war as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flexes its muscles and seeks closer ties with Tehran.

The raid came as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had long urged Iraq against a violent takeover of the camp, visited the country on Wednesday. Though the Iraqi government had repeatedly asked the Iranian exile group, the Mujahidin e Khalq (MKO, or People’s Mujahedin), to leave the country, US officials said the raid came as a surprise and the BBC quoted US Gen. Ray Odierno as saying the government had promised to deal with the MKO in a “humane fashion.” (The BBC article also has video of the beginning of the raid.)

Camp Ashraf, the object of the raid, has been the principal home of the MKO since the Iranian group allied itself with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, receiving weapons and training from his regime. Hussein used them as shock-troops against Iraqi Kurds and Shiites who rose up against his regime in the 1990s.

The camp is currently home to about 3,500 Iranian exiles and a smattering of fellow travelers from the US and Europe who subscribe to the group’s secular blend of Islam, Marxism, and feminism and a "cult of personality" centered on the group's leader, Maryam Rajavi, according to a 2007 State Department report.

On her website, Mrs. Rajavi called Wednesday's clash at Camp Ashraf "a war crime, a crime against humanity, and a futile attempt by [Iran's Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei to compensate for his defeat in the face of the nationwide uprising." She called for an international delegation to investigate.

They’ve abided in the camp for the past six years, largely under US protection. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 it disarmed thousands of MKO fighters, but was left with a quandary. The group’s members are despised by mainstream Iraqi society as tools of Hussein’s repression and they were designated a terrorist organization by the US State Department for their murders of civilians. (American citizens have been among their victims.)

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