Iraqi Police Storm Ashraf – Iraq police clash anew with Iran rebel camp residents

KHALES, Iraq (AFP) – Clashes flared for a second day on Wednesday between Iraqi security forces and residents of a camp housing Iran’s main exiled opposition, a day after violence left two policemen dead.

AFP – Iraqi police vehicles block one of the entrances leading to Camp Ashraf, home to the People’s Mujahedeen, …

Around 420 people were also wounded after Iraqi soldiers stormed the camp on Tuesday, sparking unrest that prompted the deployment of riot police to quell resistance from Camp Ashraf’s residents.

"Fighting resumed when Iraqi police established a police station and hoisted the Iraqi flag," police Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim al-Karawi said, adding that Iraqi security forces were controlling about 75 percent of the camp.

Another police officer said clashes continued into the evening.

The opposition People’s Mujahedeen said seven residents of the camp, in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, were killed but there was no independent confirmation of those deaths.

Doctor Abdullah al-Timimi from the main hospital in the nearby town of Khales said the two policemen died on Wednesday from injuries sustained the previous day.

One suffered internal bleeding following a blow to the head. The other was stabbed in the neck, he said.

The Iraqi defence ministry was unapologetic about the raid against the camp, saying it was justified under a November security agreement with Washington.

"It’s our territory and it’s our right to enter, to impose Iraqi law on everybody," defence ministry spokesman General Mohammed Askari told Al-Arabiya television.

"They (camp residents) have to submit to the law, and to Iraqi sovereignty. The SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) authorises us to do what we did."

Under the pact, Iraqi security forces took over responsibility for the camp three months ago from US forces, which had disarmed the 3,500 or so residents following the 2003 invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh insisted in a statement that Baghdad "will not force anyone to leave Iraq against his will" after a Mujahedeen spokesman expressed concern that camp residents who were arrested would be handed over to Tehran.

A government committee, established on Wednesday to oversee the camp, said in a statement that authorities were aiming to close it and transfer its residents to another location in Iraq or help them leave the country if they wished, but noted that those were long-term goals.

A police official said 300 camp residents, 25 of them women, had been wounded along with around 120 security force personnel. More than 50 camp residents were detained.

The Mujahedeen said seven camp residents were killed and 385 wounded.

Karawi said negotiations between Diyala provincial police chief General Abdul Hussein al-Shamari and the Mujahedeen, which began on Tuesday evening, had stalled.

A US administration official said that Washington — which still blacklists the Mujahedeen as a terrorist organisation — had received assurances that camp residents would be treated in a "humane" manner.

The storming of the camp coincided with a visit to Iraq by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates but the top US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said the US military had no advance warning.

Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani welcomed the seizure of the camp, describing the action as "praiseworthy" albeit "rather late".

Maryam Rajavi, the head of the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran which includes the Mujahedeen, condemned the raid and accused Baghdad of doing Tehran’s bidding.

The People’s Mujahedeen was founded in 1965 in opposition to the shah and has subsequently fought to oust the clerical regime which took power in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The group set up Camp Ashraf in the 1980s — when Saddam was at war with the Islamic republic — as a base to operate against the Iranian government.

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