BAGHDAD: At least 19 Iranian dissidents were killed in clashes at a camp north of Baghdad yesterday, two security sources said, but the dissident group itself put the toll far higher.
The violence took place hours after a mortar attack on the camp which the dissent group Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK) blamed on the Iraqi army.
The security sources said that army and special forces opened fire on residents who had stormed a post at the entrance to Camp Ashraf, a site that Iraq’s government wants closed down. They said 52 people were wounded and 38 arrested.
MEK said 52 of its roughly 100 members there had been killed.
An advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki said reports that security forces had opened fire on the residents were “baseless” and said Maliki had ordered an investigation into what happened at the camp.
“We want to know the truth,” adviser Ali Al Moussawi said. He said it was not clear what exactly had caused the blast in the morning. Residents could have been killed in the explosion or through infighting at the camp, he said.
MEK, which the US State Department removed from its list of terrorist organisations last year, said some residents were machine-gunned with their hands tied behind their backs.
The US embassy in Iraq condemned “the terrible events that took place in Camp Ashraf” and the United Nations said it would send in a team from its Iraq office to carry out its own assessment.
“We further call on Iraqi authorities to act with urgency to immediately ensure medical assistance to the wounded and to secure the camp against any further violence or harm to the residents,” the US embassy statement said, calling for a full and independent investigation.
MEK emailed photos of people it said had been shot in the head during the clashes. Men and women were shown lying on blood-covered floors. It was not possible for Reuters independently to verify the images.
“The Iraqi government stresses the need for help to deport elements of the Mujahadin-e-Khalq who are on Iraqi soil illegally but at the same time confirms its commitment to the safety of souls on its territory,” Maliki’s office said in a statement referring to “events” at Camp Ashraf.
It gave no further details. MEK wants Iran’s clerical leaders overthrown, and fought with former Iraqi Sunni Muslim leader Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
It has been trying to recast itself as an Iranian opposition force but is no longer welcome in Iraq under the Shia Muslim-led government that came to power after US-led forces invaded and toppled Saddam in 2003.
“The United Nations deplores the tragic events at Camp Ashraf today,” a statement from the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, echoing calls for a probe. “It is the duty of the Government of Iraq to ensure the safety and security of residents,” it said.
Mortar attacks on a newer MEK camp in a former military compound in western Baghdad, where authorities had relocated most Camp Ashraf MEK members, took place in February and June. At the time, MEK blamed Iran’s Quds force — an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards with a special focus on foreign operations.
MEK, also known as the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran, led a guerrilla campaign against the US-backed Iranian Shah during the 1970s that included attacks on US targets.