BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s government acknowledged on Thursday that seven Iranian exiles were killed when Iraqi forces took control of their camp this week north of Baghdad.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh had earlier denied anyone died in the clashes between Iraqi forces and protesters who tried to block their entry into Camp Ashraf, home to the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) for two decades.
Iraq, Iran and the United States call the dissident group a terrorist organisation. Iraq’s Shi’ite Arab-led government wants to close the camp and send residents to Iran or a third country.
Residents have reported that Iraqi forces stormed the camp, shooting, beating and arresting people.
Resident Behzad Saffari, acting as a spokesman for other residents, said a dozen had been killed, at least six of whom were shot by police. Hundreds were wounded, he said.
Dabbagh said on Thursday that seven people had died but disputed residents’ accounts of how the deaths occurred.
“Five of them threw themselves in front of Iraqi police vehicles ... That’s not death by shooting, but by rioting.”
He said the other two people were shot by PMOI snipers when they tried to leave the camp. Iraqi officials regard the group as a threat and say many of the camp’s 3,500 residents are brainwashed or forced to stay.
Some human rights groups and supporters in the West have been highly critical of the way Iraq has handled Ashraf.
They say closing the camp and driving residents out against their will would violate international human rights law.
A U.S. team is providing medical care to injured residents at Camp Ashraf, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington, adding that U.S. officials met Iraqi officials on Wednesday to urge Iraq to treat the people humanely.
“We wanted to stress the importance...of Iraq fulfilling its commitment to the U.S. government to treat the camp residents humanely,” Kelly said. “The government of Iraq did agree to allow U.S. forces to provide medical assistance to those who were injured at Camp Ashraf ... Right now a U.S. medical team (is) there performing this assistance.”
The PMOI said on Tuesday residents would be willing to move back to Iran but only on condition they were guaranteed immunity from prosecution, jail, torture or execution under international observation, a condition Tehran is unlikely to accept.
“They cannot remove us. The people of Ashraf are ready to die,” Saffari 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.”
The PMOI was given shelter in Iraq by late leader Saddam Hussein who fought an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s.
Iraq’s government, which includes former Saddam opponents who lived in exile in Iran, has a close but complex relationship with Tehran.
The PMOI surrendered most of its weapons to U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq but its presence remains a source of friction between Baghdad, Washington and Tehran.
“We welcome the move (raiding the camp), although it was late,” Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani as quoted as saying by state television on Wednesday. “We hope the Iraqi government not to let these terrorists to remain in Iraq.”
The group began as leftist opponents of 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 the camp and sometimes blocking the entry of food and medicines.
The clashes this week add an uncomfortable twist to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship as Washington tries to stress Iraq’s increasing military primacy ahead of the U.S. withdrawal by 2012 but is loathe to be accused of standing by if abuses occur.
Iraq has “the right as a sovereign nation to get into the camp and establish some command and control and some order within the camp, to determine what is in there, and that’s what they’ve tried to do,” said Brigadier General Steve Lanza, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq.
“There has been a little bit of violence that has since been mitigated, but once again we’re encouraging restraint on both sides,” Lanza told Reuters TV in Washington.
Additional reporting by Deborah Lutterbeck in Washington and Tehran bureau; Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Diana Abdallah