By Ernesto Londoño and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
BAGHDAD, July 28 -- Iraqi troops and police carried out a bloody raid Tuesday on the camp of an Iranian opposition group that the United States has long sheltered, marking the Iraqi government's boldest move since it declared its sovereignty a month ago and offering the latest sign that American influence is waning as Iranian clout rises.
The operation, which caught U.S. officials off guard, coincided with a visit by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and analysts said it appeared designed to send a message of Iraqi independence.
The Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, has supplied information about Iran's nuclear program to the United States, but the group has long been an irritant to the Islamic republic, which has repeatedly asked the government of neighboring Iraq to expel MEK members. The way Baghdad deals with the group is widely seen as a signal of whether Iraq is more heavily swayed by Iran or by the United States.
Leaders of the group said Iraqi troops fatally shot four residents Tuesday night and wounded scores. U.S. officials have long opposed a violent takeover of the camp northeast of Baghdad, and the Iraqi government's willingness to carry out the raid while Gates was in the country startled some American officials.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said American officials did not oppose an assault on the camp as long as troops treated residents humanely. He said initial reports from Iraqi commanders indicated that their troops had not used lethal force and that no one had been killed.
"We didn't know they were going to do this," Odierno said Tuesday night. "We had no prior warning."
Kenneth Katzman, a senior Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress, called the raid "very serious" and said it was disturbing that it coincided with Gates's visit.
"It suggests that as the Iraqi government is increasingly independent of the United States, it might use this freedom of action to 'settle scores' with its opponents or act on behalf of outside benefactors," he said in an e-mail. "In this case, the attack would appear to be at the behest of Iran, which has accused [the MEK] of involvement in the recent internal unrest" in Iran.
Residents of Camp Ashraf, home to more than 3,000 people, said in phone interviews that hundreds of Iraqi troops and police officers gathered outside the camp in the afternoon. Driving armored Humvees donated by the U.S. military, Iraqi troops in riot gear barreled through one of the camp's gates and clashed with people forming a human shield, according to residents.
The troops used batons, fire hoses, pepper spray, sound grenades and riot shields to plow through the hundreds-strong crowd, residents said. Group leaders said that at least 300 people were wounded in the clashes.
"They sprayed the residents with hot water and beat them with batons," resident Safa Mohammed said in a phone interview. "They beat them with rocks. We tried to push them back, but, as you know, we don't have any weapons."
The accounts could not be independently corroborated. Photographs and video clips that camp residents e-mailed to reporters showed residents being beaten. Other photos and videos showed bloodied men being stitched up at the camp's clinic.
"This is a crime against humanity," the group's leader, Maryam Rajavi, said in a phone interview from Rome. "I'm really shocked. The American forces were present and allowed this attack to take place."
Group leaders said Tuesday that at least nine members were taken into custody.
Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities on June 30, Iraqi commanders have acted with unprecedented autonomy, and in some areas, they have actively sought to marginalize their American counterparts. Senior Iraqi officials billed the date, the first of three deadlines that chart the U.S. withdrawal, as an independence day of sorts.
A small contingent of U.S. soldiers remained at a base outside the camp after the Iraqi government assumed nominal control of it Jan. 1. "The Americans were at the scene, but they didn't move a finger," said Behzad Saffari, one of the camp's leaders, who reported witnessing the clashes. "They just stood there taking pictures."
The U.S. military would not confirm that American soldiers were present. It referred an inquiry to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. An embassy spokeswoman said all questions should be addressed to the Iraqi government.
Iraqi officials said the operation's goal was to establish a police station inside the camp, widely seen as the first step toward evicting residents. The government considers the group a cult with a terrorist past and resents that the United States protected the MEK camp for six years.
A day before the raid, the Iraqi government had announced plans to assert full control over the camp.
Parliament member Ali al-Adeeb, a confidant of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the government resorted to force after several failed attempts to take control of the camp and expel the residents through other means.
"For now, the main gates of Ashraf are controlled by the Iraqi forces," he said. Although he acknowledged the clashes, he said MEK leaders were probably exaggerating the number of casualties to generate "media clamor."
In what might signal a realization that their indefinite presence at Ashraf is untenable as the United States starts to withdraw from Iraq, the group's leaders announced late Monday that members were willing to return to Iran under certain conditions. It was the first time the group had suggested that a large number of its members would be willing to return home.
But the conditions it has laid out seem unrealistic. The MEK said members would return if Iran promised in writing to the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States and Iraq that residents who went back would not be arrested and would enjoy freedom of speech.
The U.S. military has maintained a presence at the camp since 2003, when the group, an erstwhile ally of Saddam Hussein, agreed to disarm. The MEK was founded in the 1960s by Marxist university students. It morphed into a guerrilla organization that attacked Iranian and U.S. officials in Iran during the 1970s. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, its main purpose was to overthrow the regime. Because its members attacked U.S. citizens in Iran years ago, the State Department labels the group a terrorist organization.
During the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, MEK members were given refuge in Hussein's Iraq, and they are widely suspected to have participated in violent crackdowns against Kurdish and Shiite uprisings.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Tuesday, 16 people were killed in Baghdad in two incidents, an Iraqi security official said. Eight were killed in a motorcycle bombing in New Baghdad, a district in the eastern part of the capital. In upscale Karrada, a central Baghdad neighborhood, eight people were slain in a bank heist.
Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Qais Mizher contributed to this report.