Iraqi forces clash with residents at Iranian camp

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BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces clashed with residents of an Iranian dissident camp north of Baghdad overnight on Friday, the Iraqi government said, and an Iranian opposition group said residents were attacked and killed.

The government spokesman said five Iraqi security forces were wounded during the incident at Camp Ashraf, while representatives of the camp called the incident a "criminal attack" in which 25 residents were killed and 320 wounded.

The 25-year-old camp, home to some 3,500 people, is the base of the People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran (PMOI), a guerrilla group that opposes Iran’s Shia cleric leaders.

The United States, Iraq and Iran consider the PMOI a terrorist organization.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh said Ashraf residents threw rocks at security forces in what he called a "riot." Troops had not opened fire, he said, contrary to reports by camp residents.

"The security forces have pushed back residents of Camp Ashraf inside the camp by force," Dabbagh said. "The situation is now controlled."

"I can’t deny the occurrence of injuries among residents of Camp Ashraf, because we do not have information from inside the camp," Dabbagh said.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the PMOI’s political wing, said Iraqi security forces had been ordered by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to attack the camp, in restive Diyala province about 90 km (55 miles) northeast of Baghdad in a remote location largely inaccessible to journalists.

"Al-Maliki, under orders of (Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei, has commenced an unprecedented murder in Ashraf," the group said in a statement.

"Forces under his command used Colts, automatic weapons and machineguns installed on armored vehicles to open fire on residents."

Ashraf has been a sore spot for Washington, Baghdad and Tehran for years. The PMOI began as a group of Islamist leftists opposed to Iran’s late Shah and fell out with Shia clerics who took power after the 1979 revolution.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is visiting Iraq, said the US military had reports of deaths in clashes at Ashraf but could not confirm them.

"We’re very concerned with reports of deaths and injuries resulting from this morning’s clashes … I urge the Iraqi government to show restraint and to live up to its commitments to treat residents of Ashraf according to Iraqi law and their international obligations."

The PMOI was given shelter in Iraq by Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and some of the group’s guerrillas fought with Saddam against Iran.

Iraq’s current government, which includes former Saddam opponents, has a close relationship with Tehran.

The group surrendered weapons to US forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The fate of Ashraf’s residents has been in question since Iraq took over the camp from US forces in 2009 under a bilateral security pact.

Asked about any US military role, Gates said nearby forces might render medical help "but that’s about the extent of it."

Rights advocates said earlier this year in Geneva that the UN and United States should take on protection of the camp to head off a tragedy which could lead to the deaths of residents. –Additional reporting by Khalid Al-Ansary in Baghdad and Missy Ryan in Mosul


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