US to investigate Iraqi raid on Iranian camp

The violent raid on Camp Ashraf Tuesday is seen as an assertion of Iraqi sovereignty – and of Iran's growing influence on its neighbor.

Alex Brandon/AP
Protesters show support for Iranians in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, in front of the White House in Washington on Wednesday.

The US is investigating a raid by Iraqi security forces on a camp of thousands of Iranian dissidents in northern Iraq earlier this week that resulted in deaths and injuries.

Tuesday's raid on Camp Ashraf – home since the 1980's to more than 3,000 members of the Mujahadeen-e Khalq, or People's Mujahideen of Iran – is seen as a declaration of sovereignty by the Iraqi government in the wake of the recent agreement on US military operations in Iraq. Camp Ashraf was previously guarded by US forces in Iraq.

But Iraq's military action against a camp that has long been a thorn in the side of its relations with Iran is also seen by some regional experts as reflection of Iran's growing influence with Iraq's Shiite-led government. The Mujahadeen-e Khalq (known by the acronyms MKO or MEK) allied with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.

US officials are portraying the raid as the legitimate action of a sovereign government. "This action … on the part of the government of Iraq is entirely consistent with their rights as a sovereign country to establish control over the area," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday.

But he also called reports of deaths and injuries in the raid "disturbing," and said US officials are pressing the government of Iraq to fulfill a written agreement it gave the US earlier this year concerning the camp. In that agreement, Iraq committed to protecting the camp residents and refrain from transferring them to a country where they might face prosecution.

Officials from the US embassy in Baghdad met Wednesday with Iraqi officials and secured an agreement to allow a US medical team to enter the camp Thursday. But camp advocates in Washington, who call themselves the US Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents, say international media are being kept out of the camp so they cannot report on what the committee claims is continuing violence against Ashraf residents.

The US government considers the MKO a terrorist organization, although some members of Congress have been pushing the State Department to remove the group from the US terrorism list.

In the past, the MKO has provided the US government with inside information on Iran's nuclear program, and its leaders claim that, if dropped from the terrorism list, they could mount effective anti-government operations inside Iran with the public's help.

According to US officials in Washington, Iraq claims it wants to "regularize" the camp, and was attempting to set up a police station inside the camp Tuesday when things turned violent.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials acknowledged Thursday that seven camp residents were killed in the raid. But government spokesman Al al-Dabbagh labeled most of the cases "death by rioting" – they occurred when residents threw themselves in front of police vehicles entering the camp, he said.

In other cases, he said camp snipers shot and killed residents trying to flee the camp.

Camp advocates in Washington call those claims "ridiculous." They continued a vigil outside the White House Thursday to bring international attention to the residents' plight.

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