Wall Street Journal: The U.S. State Department and Iraq’s government came under pressure from Congress Saturday over an Iraqi military attack on the camp of a controversial Iranian resistance movement that appears to have killed dozens.
The Wall Street Journal
By MARC CHAMPION and MUNAF AMMAR in Baghdad
The U.S. State Department and Iraq’s government came under pressure from Congress Saturday over an Iraqi military attack on the camp of a controversial Iranian resistance movement that appears to have killed dozens.
The movement, the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, known as the MEK, said Saturday the death toll from the clash had risen to 33, after two of the wounded died. The group said about 325 others had been wounded, 170 by gunshot wounds. Those claims could not been independently verified. The clash prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Iraq, to call on Baghdad to exercise restraint Friday, but on Saturday Congress was demanding a stronger response.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and ranking Democrat Howard Berman wrote to Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to describe the Iraqi military action as “unacceptable.” The letter also demanded Iraq stand by a written commitment it gave to secure the camp’s safety, when it took control from the U.S. in 2009.
In a separate letter, 30 members of Congress asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to put more pressure on Iraq’s government over the incident and to ensure medical care reaches the wounded. “These actions … suggest a troubling acquiescence by the [Iraqi] government to Iranian demands,” the Congressional letter said, echoing claims by the MEK that the Iraqi action was taken at the request of Tehran, which considers the group as terrorists. Tehran denies that claim.
The MEK distributed videos Friday of what it said were people crushed by Humvees or shot with live ammunition during the fighting, which a spokesman at Camp Ashraf contacted by phone said had begun at 4:45 a.m. On Saturday, the group released a further video, purporting to show Iraqi troops firing at the residents.
Iraqi officials said the fighting was triggered by camp residents, who attacked military units stationed just outside the camp limits. They denied anyone had been shot.
“I urge the Iraqi government to show restraint and live up to their commitments to treat Ashraf residents in accordance with Iraqi law and international obligations,” Mr. Gates said. He told reporters traveling with him that U.S. forces were maintaining a “nearby presence.”
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that while “we do not know what exactly transpired early this morning at Ashraf, this crisis and the loss of life was initiated by the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi military.”
The MEK, a militant Marxist group with cult-like practices, initially supported the 1979 Iranian revolution and attacked U.S. targets, but quickly turned against the new Islamic regime. Saddam Hussein gave the group Ashraf as an armed camp from which to organize, and the MEK carried out numerous attacks in Iran before renouncing violence in 2001.
Iran has always wanted the MEK out of Iraq, and more recently so has the Iraqi government, but the 3,400 camp residents have refused to leave.
Though still listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, the MEK received U.S. military protection at Camp Ashraf after the U.S. invasion of Iraq until January 2009, when control of the camp was transferred to Iraqi authorities. The MEK has been seeking to re-engage the U.S. since then.
On Friday, Rep. Ted Poe (R., Texas) condemned the attack at Camp Ashraf at a news conference in Washington. “The Iraqi government, the mullahs and the Iranian government all seem to be complicit in the attacks against civilians in Ashraf,” said Mr. Poe, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is sponsoring a resolution urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to remove the MEK from the Foreign Terrorist Organization list.
The MEK has held eight conferences this year to promote its bid to lift the designation in the U.S. and to protect Camp Ashraf, drawing support from Washington heavy hitters that include former Obama administration national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones.
“Our kids didn’t go to Iraq to die so people could use our weapons to kill innocent people,” Howard Dean said at the same press conference Friday. He stressed that U.S. forces near the camp did nothing to halt the attack.
This was the second time there has been a battle at the camp during a visit to Iraq by Mr. Gates. The first was in July 2009, six months after control of the camp was transferred to Iraq.
Iraq said the violence started when MEK members attacked Iraqi military entering the camp to set up a police station. The Iraqi government announced an inquiry into that incident, which left at least six MEK members dead, but has yet to make any finding public, Amnesty International said in a demand for an investigation into Friday’s events.
On Friday, the movement’s Paris-based leader, Maryam Rajavi, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him “to act upon the U.S. government’s commitments and responsibilities and prevent the continuation of war crimes.”
Farhaz Eshraghi, a press liaison at the camp, said 31 corpses had been collected at what used to serve as the camp’s hospital. He said 16 people were in critical condition at the camp and a number of others had been “kidnapped” by the Iraqi military.
A spokesman for Iraq’s defense ministry, Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, said “There was no shooting at the camp, it was a fight and scuffle without shooting.” He referred questions to the government.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said about 100 camp residents attacked Iraqi troops during a “routine switch of military units outside the camp and that protect the camp.” He said the MEK members started throwing stones and burning tires, and wounded five soldiers. Iraqi forces then pushed back to pin them inside the camp, he said.
“The government does not want to take any inhumane action toward them and remove them out of Iraq to Iran or any other country, but they must respect Iraqi law,” Mr. al-Dabbagh said. ” We ask the international community help to solve [the MEK’s] problem and find another country to accept them.”
Visits to Baghdad by Iranian officials routinely include public demands for the camp’s closure. While not widely popular within Iran, the MEK continues to worry the regime. The MEK’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance in Iran, first publicly exposed Iran’s nuclear fuel program in 2002. The NCRI has made a series of further revelations about the Iranian program since.
In the video clips distributed by the MEK, members waving sticks and carrying riot shields are seen attempting to force the Iraqi vehicles to turn back by running in front of them. They are met with tear gas. The Iraqi government acknowledged its forces were involved in the clash.
The MEK named more than a dozen people it said were killed and produced a video with their faces when alive, and in some cases dead.
“This is absolutely a bloodbath. These are unarmed people,” said Shahin Gobadi, a Paris-based spokesman for the NCRI. He suggested that the Iraqi government was acting under pressure from Iran, because “Tehran is in a very difficult situation, the uprisings began again and they feel threatened.” He was referring to Iran’s Green movement, which launched protests against the regime in 2009 and has resurfaced amid the pro-democracy revolts roiling the Middle East.
Asked Friday if Iran had requested the Iraqi government to dismantle Camp Ashraf, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, Alireza Miryusefi, said: “We are not aware of any such request.”
—Nathan Hodge in Mosul, Iraq, Scott Greenberg in Washington and Farnaz Fassihi in Beirut contributed to this article.