Fighting Continues at Iranian Exile Camp Raided by Iraqi Troops

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 30, 2009

BAGHDAD, July 29 -- Violent clashes continued for a second day Wednesday between Iraqi troops and members of an Iranian opposition group whose camp the Iraqis stormed Tuesday, presenting the first major dilemma for the U.S. government since Iraq proclaimed its sovereignty a month ago.

At least eight Iranians have been killed and 400 wounded since Tuesday, when hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers in riot gear plowed into Camp Ashraf, northeast of Baghdad, using Humvees donated by the U.S. military, according to group leaders and Abdul Nasir al-Mahdawi, the governor of Diyala province.

Camp residents described the day's events as a massacre and the aftermath as a tense stalemate.

Behzad Saffari, a leader of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, said that Iraqi troops were preventing gravely injured people from being taken to hospitals outside the group's camp and that residents feared soldiers would storm their living quarters.

"We have 1,000 women," he said. "This is our main concern now."

The raid, ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, coincided with an unannounced visit by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who left Iraq on Wednesday.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the raid as a legitimate act by a sovereign nation. "Although the U.S. government remains engaged and concerned about this issue, it is a matter for the government of Iraq to resolve in accordance with its laws," she said.

Clinton said Iraq had given assurances that camp residents would be treated humanely and would not be relocated anywhere they would have a well-founded fear of persecution. She urged the Iraqis to "show restraint."

U.S. officials are deeply concerned about the reports of violence and have been monitoring the situation using camera-equipped unmanned aircraft, said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We're asking the Iraqis questions," the official said. "Sometimes they answer, sometimes they don't."

A contingent of U.S. soldiers based outside Ashraf have been watching but have declined to intervene, residents said.

The raid and its aftermath represent a conundrum for U.S. officials. Some say they feel obligated to the MEK because its members have provided information about Iran's nuclear program and because American officials vowed to protect them after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But condemning this week's events could be seen as an affront to Maliki's government just as U.S. officials are talking up Iraq's sovereignty, proclaimed June 30 when American troops withdrew from cities.

The stated goal of the Ashraf operation was to set up an Iraqi police station inside the camp, a move Iraq has described as the first step toward evicting the more than 3,000 residents.

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