- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In another assertion of Iraq’s growing sovereignty, Iraqi forces Tuesday took control of a compound outside Baghdad that houses members of an Iranian opposition group long protected by the U.S. military.

The attack occurred without prior notification of U.S. authorities and took place while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was in Baghdad.

The compound, known as Camp Ashraf, is home to about 3,500 members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The group, responsible for acts of violence against Iran, against Iraqi Shi’ites in 1991 and against Americans in Iran in the 1970s, is on the U.S. State Department terrorism list. But U.S. officials have protected Ashraf residents since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 for fear that they would be tortured or executed if forcibly repatriated.

Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, told The Washington Times that Iraq would not force the MEK members to go to Iran or any other third country against their will.

Ali Safavi, a member of the foreign affairs committee for the MEK-affiliated National Council of Resistance, said the Iraqi raid was violent and killed four people and injured 260. “Dozens have been taken away, and this is a blatant breach of international law and the Geneva Conventions,” he said.

Mr. al-Dabbagh denied the claims. He said the purpose of the raid was to establish a police station at the camp, which has been under a kind of home rule since U.S. forces departed on Jan. 1.

“We are not going to force them to move anywhere,” Mr. al-Dabbagh said.

Mr. al-Dabbagh said, however, that the Iraqi government would investigate MEK members for participation in the repression of a Shi’ite uprising in southern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War.

“If we find anyone who did anything illegal against Iraqis, we are definitely going to question them and they will be subjected to the legal system here in Iraq,” he said. “As long as we have a document and we have a claim against anyone of them, the Iraqi government will look into it.”

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert for the Congressional Research Service, called the attack on the camp “especially troubling for the Obama administration because it occurred while Defense Secretary Gates is in Iraq, and the United States considers the Ashraf residents protected persons under the Geneva Convention. It suggests that, as the Iraqi government is increasingly independent of the United States, it might use this freedom of action to act against perceived domestic opponents or on behalf of outside benefactors. In this case, the attack would appear to be at the behest of Iran, which has accused [the MEK] of involvement in the recent internal unrest in Iran.”

Steven Schneebaum, a Washington-based attorney representing the American relatives of some Camp Ashraf residents, said he was not assured by Iraqi promises not to repatriate the MEK members.

“We have also gotten assurances that they would not enter Camp Ashraf using force, and they obviously did this,” he said. “So therefore the assurances that they will not now do what the Iranian regime wants them to do are a little bit suspect.”

The MEK sent The Times a video showing a soldier firing a single shot from a rifle into a crowd. Another video showed police using batons and water cannons on people. While the group said the videos depicted Tuesday’s events at Camp Ashraf, that could not be independently confirmed.

At a press conference in Iraq Tuesday, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Force - Iraq, said he had not been apprised of the decision to launch the raid. He did, however, say that Iraqis used “non-lethal force.”

John Fleming, a public information officer, said the Iraqi government has provided written and verbal assurances that “no Camp Ashraf resident will be forcibly transferred to a country where they have reason to fear persecution based on their political opinions or religious beliefs, or where there are substantial grounds for believing they would be tortured.”

A White House official, who spoke on condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the Iraqi government “assured us that the residents of Camp Ashraf will receive humane treatment, consistent with Iraq’s constitution, laws and international obligations. We are urging restraint on both sides. Although the USG [U.S. government] remains engaged on this issue, control has been handed over to the Government of Iraq to resolve in accordance with international humanitarian considerations.”

Then-President Clinton designated the MEK as a terrorist group. The organization, which originally followed a mix of Islamic and Marxist ideology, opposed the U.S.-backed shah in the 1970s and killed six Americans in Tehran. Losing out in a power struggle after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the group fled to Iraq and fought against Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Michael Rubin, a former Iraq policy analyst at the Pentagon, said U.S. policy toward the MEK after 2003 was to “kick the can down the road,” noting that neither the State Department nor the Pentagon liked the group.

Despite the organization’s violent history, it accumulated some support in the U.S. Congress. The group insists that it is now democratic, even though a cult of personality surrounds its leader, Maryam Rajavi, who is based outside Paris.

In 2002, a political arm of the MEK publicized evidence that Iran had been hiding a nuclear program. The ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, has in the past called on the State Department to remove the MEK from the terrorist list. She did not return phone calls on Tuesday.

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