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Iraq Admits Deaths In Takeover Of Iran Exile Camp

Residents at Camp Ashraf protest on July 28.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's government has admitted that seven Iranian exiles were killed when Iraqi forces took control of their camp north of Baghdad.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh had earlier denied anyone died in clashes on July 28 between police and demonstrators who tried to block their entry into Camp Ashraf, which has been home to the People's Mujahedin of Iran (also known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, MKO) for about two decades.

Iraq, Iran, and the United States consider the dissident group a terrorist organization.

Camp residents said Iraqi forces stormed in and shot or beat many people and arrested others. Resident Bezhad Saffari, a lawyer, said a dozen people had been killed, at least six of them shot by police. Hundreds were wounded, he said.

Dabbagh, while admitting people had died, disputed the details of how they died. "Five of them threw themselves in front of Iraqi police vehicles," he said. "That's not death by shooting, but by rioting."

The other two dead were shot by MKO snipers inside the camp when they tried to leave, Dabbagh said. Iraqi officials regard the group as a cult and say the camp's 3,500 residents are brainwashed or forced to stay.

Iraq's Shi'ite Arab-led government wants to close the camp and expel residents back to Iran or to a third country.

The MKO said on July 27 they would be willing to move back to Iran but only on condition they receive a letter from the government promising them immunity from prosecution, jail, torture, or execution, a condition Tehran is unlikely to accept.

"They cannot remove us. The people of Ashraf are ready to die," Bezhad told Reuters. "This is a matter of pride and dignity that we stay. You cannot say to people who've been here for 20 years that suddenly it's time to leave."

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government, which includes many former opponents of Saddam Hussein who were exiled in Iran, has close ties to Tehran. The MKO surrendered its weaponry to U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq but its presence remains a source of friction between Baghdad, Washington, and Tehran.

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

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