Seven members of the Iranian opposition faction Mujahedin Khalq were reportedly killed by Iraqi security in Iraq’s Diyala province, but government officials said outside pressure was not a factor.
Reporting from Baghdad — The Iraqi government refuted suggestions today that Iranian pressure had prompted a raid on a camp belonging to an Iranian opposition group, saying that Iraqi security forces are merely seeking to extend sovereignty over all Iraqi territory.
The Mujahedin Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has long opposed the Iranian government, claimed that seven of its members died in clashes with Iraqi security forces after Iraqi police attempted to enter its camp in Diyala province Tuesday to open a police station.
"The Iraqi government is determined to establish its sovereignty over all positions and facilities that were under the control of foreign forces," government spokesman Ali Dabbagh told reporters. "The government wants to open an Iraqi police station inside the camp to impose the rule of law and establish the rule of the state."
Dabbagh said Iranian citizens in the camp would not be forced to return to Iran, where they fear they would be punished..
Camp Ashraf, as the facility is known, illustrates the complex relationship that has emerged between Iraq and its two biggest allies, the U.S. and Iran. The camp dates back to the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein invited the MEK to establish a presence in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.
The U.S. military inherited control of Camp Ashraf after the 2003 American-led invasion in which Hussein was ousted, and U.S. forces disarmed the group. Though the U.S. brands MEK as a terrorist organization, it has also protected the perimeter of the camp and has argued against the forcible deportation of its 3,500 residents to Iran.
With the implementation of last December’s security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, Iraqi forces assumed control of the camp’s perimeter and they have for months been threatening to take control of the camp itself. Iraq, meanwhile, has come under intense pressure from neighboring Iran to close the camp, from which residents are accused of carrying out acts of terrorism in Iran.
MEK says it has not carried out any acts of violence since 2002.
Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani praised the raid. "This action by Iraq came late, but it is laudable that they decided to clear the country of terrorists," he was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.
MEK quoted the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, who lives in Paris, as saying that "the attack was carried out at the behest of the Iranian regime." But Iraqi officials insisted Iranian pressure had played no role.
"This is an Iraqi operation on Iraqi land. . . . Our forces have the right to enter any place inside our country," said Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari.
The pledge to assert the right of Iraqi forces to extend their authority over all of Iraq has potentially profound implications for another simmering dispute, over territories claimed by the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan and currently controlled by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
The peshmerga have prevented Iraqi security forces from entering their territory on at least three occasions since May, and U.S. commanders have identified the dispute as the biggest single threat to Iraq’s stability.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Kurdistan to meet with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who has just won reelection to the presidency of the northern region. Gates urged him to work with Baghdad to find a solution to the disputes before American troops finish withdrawing from Iraq, and said the U.S. was willing to help mediate a solution.
Gates told reporters that the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq’s cities has gone better than expected, and said it may be possible to speed up the withdrawal of some U.S. forces. Combat troops are due to go home by August 2010, and all U.S. forces are scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2011.
"I think there’s at least some chance of a modest acceleration," the Associated Press quoted him as saying aboard his plane on the journey back to Washington.Those brought home early could be a combat brigade of 5,000 troops, Gates said.
LA Times – July 29, 2009