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.
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.)
But they were also enemies of another American enemy, Iran, and some US politicians thought they could be a useful asset against the Iranian regime. When Iraq’s first post-Saddam government, appointed by the US, tried to kick the MKO out of the country, the US stepped in. The US even turned down Iranian overtures to trade Al Qaeda operatives in Iranian custody for MKO members in American hands.
The US administration eventually gave them protected status – something they enjoyed until the US handed the control of the camp over to Iraq in January.
Since then, Iraqi officials have redoubled their efforts to get rid of the group. MKO members inside Camp Ashraf have rejected Iraqi efforts to encourage them to return to Iran or find third countries to take them on. Iranian officials have promised amnesty to any members who voluntarily return and about 250 have taken them up on the offer so far. But the group has continued to behave semi-autonomously. On Tuesday, after Iraqi police sought to set up a post inside the camp, they were attacked by MKO members and two died, according to Agence France Press – setting up today's confrontation.
Maliki’s Shiite-led government is seeking stronger relations with Iran, and many of its members remember how the MKO helped Hussein violently control their own community. When Maliki himself was an exile from Hussein's regime and on the run from a death sentence at home, his Islamist political party received assistance from Iran.
Iraq’s national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie has been warning for months that Iraqi patience with the group was wearing thin. He described them as “brainwashed cult members from a high-trained terrorist organization” in an April interview and added that "if they resist and carry out this engineered crisis there will be some pain."
The groups members are noted for their fervor and devotion, something which probably contributed to today's clashes, which also left dozens of Iraqi forces injured. Shortly after Ms. Rajavi was arrested by French police in 2003 on suspicions she was using MKO offices to plan terrorist attacks on Iranian diplomatic missions in Europe, a number of her followers in Paris set themselves on fire and some died from their burns.
A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch reported the use of torture and detention of MKO members who expressed criticism or wished to the leave the group at Camp Ashraf. It also details the demands made of members over the years based on the demands of Rajavi, who views herself as Iran’s president in waiting, and her husband Massoud Rajavi.
For instance, in the late 1980s after a series of military failures, Mr. Rajavi declared that they were failing to overthrow the Iranian regime because of insufficient commitment to the cause, and said that people’s attachment to their spouses were a distraction. He ordered all members of the organization immediately divorced, and personally collected their wedding rings. The Rajavis themselves remained married, however. Massoud has not been seen since the US invasion of Iraq and its not clear if he’s dead or in hiding.
The reclusive Maryam Rajavi is based in Paris.