TEHRAN/BAGHDAD – On Tuesday, Iraqi soldiers and riot police stormed Camp Ashraf, where Mojahedin Khalq Organization members had been based, triggering violent clashes that left at least 260 people injured.
Iraqi officials say clashes broke out as they were trying to establish a police post in the camp.
“After the failure of negotiations with the Mojahedin (Khalq) to enter peacefully, the Iraqi army entered Camp Ashraf with force and it now controls the interior and all entrances to the camp,” an Iraqi military source said.
An Iraqi army spokesman in Diyala said two battalions of 400 soldiers each plus 200 riot police took part in Tuesday’s operation, which was ordered by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office.
“It is our territory and our right to enter, to impose Iraqi law on everybody,” a defense ministry spokesman told al-Arabiya television.
Camp Ashraf, 40 miles north of Baghdad in Diyala province, houses 3,418 residents. It was set up in the 1980s, when Iraq was at war with Iran, as a base to operate against the Iranian government.
The camp was disarmed by U.S. soldiers following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. soldiers had overseen the camp until handing over control three months ago to Iraqi security forces.
The Iraqi government has vowed to close Camp Ashraf and expel the members to a third country. Iran has said those members whose hands are not tainted with the blood of Iranian nationals can return home.
Police captain Firaz al-Atbi from Diyala province said about 60 members of Iraq’s security forces were also wounded, 20 seriously.
50 camp residents were also detained, AFP quoted him as saying.
Shahriar Kia, a spokesman for the MKO, said four people had been shot dead and around 300 others were injured. However, Atbi denied the four deaths.
The MKO began a campaign of assassinations and bombings in Iran shortly after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The group moved to Iraq in the early 1980s and it fought Iran from there until the United States invaded in 2003.
The executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used the heavily armed group during his decade-long war with Iran in the ’80s, and it also played a role in Saddam’s bloody suppression of Shia and Kurdish uprisings after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
The MKO was founded in Iran in the 1960s, but its top leadership and members fled the country in the 1980s after carrying out a series of assassinations and bombings inside the country.
The group is especially notorious in Iran because they allied with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
The United States, Canada, Iraq, and Iran have all designated the MKO as a terrorist organization.
The European Union had also designated the MKO as a terrorist organization but inexplicably removed it from the EU terror list in January 2009.
It is still not clear if the US gave Baghdad the green light to storm Camp Ashraf or if Iraqi officials took the action on their own initiative.
However, US military officials in Iraq say they were not informed about the plan until after it was carried out.
Many political analysts had said the United States had intended to use the Camp Ashraf MKO members as pawns to pressure Iran, so this development will change the political calculus of the region.