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Iraqi Raid Leaves Iranian Opposition Group's Future Unclear

Iraqi police allegedly beat residents of Camp Asraf. Camp resident say four of their number were killed, though Iraqi officials deny this.
(RFE/RL) -- Iraqi forces have raided the camp of an Iranian opposition group north of Baghdad, reportedly triggering clashes that left more than 400 people injured by day's end, including 100 members of the security forces.

The July 28 clashes saw the security forces call in riot police armed with batons, fire hoses, pepper spray, and sound grenades as they faced hundreds of residents trying to bar them from the premises.

Police reportedly arrested some 50 of the camp residents and spokespeople for the camp accused the officers of shooting four other residents dead. Iraqi officials denied that anyone was killed.

What sparked the fighting is not immediately clear.

Some 3,500 members of the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran (also known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, MKO) and their families live in Camp Ashraf, a sprawling fenced-in compound in Diyala province.

Usually, little is heard about them. The group, which once conducted guerrilla raids into Iran but was disarmed by U.S. forces after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, has spent the last six years doing nothing but waiting for someone to decide what to do with them.

Tense Standoff Erupts

The police raid comes after months of rising tensions at the camp over Iraqi plans to establish a police station inside it.

A day before the raid, the Iraqi government had announced plans to assert full control over the camp -- something which many camp residents fear could lead to Iraqi authorities ultimately handing them over to Tehran.

Iraqi police vehicles block one of the entrances leading to Camp Ashraf on July 29.
The Iraqi raid on the camp is the first since U.S. forces handed responsibility for it over to Baghdad as part of the two countries' security pact last year.

Washington considers the MKO a terrorist group but had kept the members under protective custody since 2003, partly to prevent their deportation to Iran.

U.S. officials said they were caught by surprise by the Iraqi action on July 28. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said the U.S. military had no advance warning.

And State Department official Ian Kelly told reporters in Washington that "we've seen these media reports and we're looking into them."

Kelly added that "the government of Iraq has assumed responsibility -- security responsibility -- for Ashraf and its residents" and that the Iraqi government has "stated to us that no Camp Ashraf resident will be forcibly transferred to a country where they have reason to fear persecution."

Tehran welcomed the Iraqi raid, saying that the camp had been closed and its residents told to either return to Iran or seek asylum in a third country.

"Although the move by the Iraqi government came late, it is still welcomed that Iraqi territory has been cleared of terrorists," parliament speaker Ali Larijani said, according to a report by the Mehr news agency.

However, there were reports of new clashes on July 29 that indicate the facility remains in operation.

AFP quoted police Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim al-Karawi as saying near the camp site that "fighting resumed when Iraqi police established a police station and hoisted the Iraqi flag."

Group's Fate Uncertain

That leaves the fate of the camp and its residents as unclear as it has always been. And it may suggest that Iraqi authorities are still not prepared to move decisively against the MKO despite their apparently strong desire to do so.

The group has been highly unpopular in Iraq since it was invited to establish a base there by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, when Iraq and Iran fought an eight-year war. The group later aided Saddam's crackdown on the Kurdish and Shi'ite rebellions that followed the Gulf War in 1991.

The post-Saddam Iraqi governments have had to balance their desire to expel the MKO with their need to consider the wishes of both Tehran and Washington in deciding the group's fate.

Tehran, which has close ties to the Shi'ite religious parties that dominate the Iraqi government, considers the MKO to be a criminal group implicated in the assassinations of several high-ranking Iranian officials.

But in turning responsibility for Camp Ashraf's residents over to Iraq, U.S. officials have made it clear they do not want to see them simply deported to Iran.

Kelly underlined that condition again on July 28, saying that "we continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure the residents of Camp Ashraf are treated in accordance with Iraq's written assurances that it will treat the residents there humanely."

Baghdad's action against the MKO comes as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visits Iraq in an effort to strengthen the government as part of U.S. plans to gradually withdraw its forces from the country.

Gates is in northern Iraq to hold talks with the Kurdish regional government over tensions between the Kurds and Baghdad over oil rights and territorial boundaries.

Washington plans to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.