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Iraq Denies Iran Exile Killings, Exiles Show Images

The camp has been home to the People's Mujahideen for two decades

The camp has been home to the People's Mujahideen for two decades

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq denied on July 29 that any Iranian exiles were killed in clashes with security forces when they seized control of their camp north of Baghdad, but residents said 11 had died and distributed images of bodies.

Iraqi forces took control on July 28 of Camp Ashraf, which for two decades has been home to members of the People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), a dissident group that Iraq and the United States label a terrorist organisation.

Bezhad Saffari, an Ashraf resident and lawyer, said forces stormed in and shot or beat many people, killing 11 and wounding 500. Earlier he said eight had died but later said others had died of wounds in hospital. Thirty were arrested, he said.

"We want to have a respectful funeral for those who died, but right now Iraqi forces are occupying the cemetery," he said.

Iraq's Shi'ite Arab-led government, unsympathetic to a group that was given shelter in Iraq by former Sunni Arab leader Saddam Hussein, has said it will close the camp and expel its 3,500 residents back to Iran or to a third country.

"There was not a single death among the PMOI," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. "The police have an order not to use any live rounds."

He added that some residents had attacked police with knives and rocks. "There are efforts under way to calm them," he said.

Urges Restraint

Speaking in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged both sides to show restraint but made clear she viewed the matter as one for the Iraqi authorities to handle.

"We are urging restraint on both sides," Clinton told reporters, noting coalition forces handed over security responsibility to Iraq in February.

"Although the U.S. government remains engaged and concerned about this issue, it is a matter now for the government of Iraq to resolve in accordance with its laws," she added.

Clinton said she expected the Iraqi authorities to honor their commitment to Washington not to send the residents to countries where they might be tortured or persecuted for their political or religious views.

Ashraf residents said that on July 28 Iraqi forces had stormed the camp where former leader Saddam gave refuge to opponents of the Iranian government. Later in the evening, they said, security forces opened fire on protesters and beat others.

Video images and photos obtained by Reuters showed three bodies with visible gunshot wounds, and other people having severe head wounds stitched up. It was impossible to verify where or when they were taken.

While Iraq and the United States deem the PMOI a terrorist group, residents enjoyed some U.S. military protection after the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam, but Iraqi forces have gradually taken over.

At a news conference in Baghdad, a senior commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Charles Jacoby, said there were no U.S. forces near the camp and he had not known Iraqi forces had planned to launch an operation there.

Lieutenant-General Ali Gaidan, commander of Iraq's ground forces, refused to be drawn on the question of deaths in Ashraf, saying he would await a report from his commanders.

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government, which includes many former Saddam opponents who were exiled in Iran, has close ties to Tehran and is unsympathetic to the PMOI.

The group began as leftists against Iran's Shah but fell out with Shi'ite clerics who took power in the 1979 revolution.

While Iraqi officials insist they are respecting dissidents' rights, Ashraf residents accuse Iraqi forces of laying siege to it and sometimes blocking the entry of food and medicines.

Despite being branded terrorists, the PMOI have garnered sympathy for their plight from politicians in the European Union, Britain and the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.