Iraq blacks out clashes at Iranian exile camp
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Deadly clashes broke out on Friday, April 8 between Iraqi troops and members of a controversial Iranian opposition group that was sheltered in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule but now faces increasing hostility from the current Iraqi government. Because journalists are kept far from the scene, the event has largely escaped international attention.
Screenshot of a video shot on April 8 at Camp Ashraf, posted on YouTube by supportashraf.
Deadly clashes broke out on Friday, April 8, between Iraqi troops and members of a controversial Iranian opposition group that was sheltered in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule but now faces increasing hostility from the current Iraqi government. Because journalists are kept far from the scene, the event has largely escaped international attention.
The People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) is distinctive in that it describes itself as both a Marxist and an Islamic movement. It was founded in 1965 in opposition to the Shah of Iran, and has been dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian government ever since. As such, it received the support of Tehran’s long time foe Saddam Hussein.
Under Saddam’s rule, the group set up a camp 80 km north of Baghdad, dubbed Camp Ashraf, from which the PMOI launched multiple cross-border attacks on Iran. The group also carried out attacks on Iranian embassies around the world, prompting the United States and European Union to list it as a terrorist organisation (although the EU removed it from its list in 2009).
After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the 3,500 residents of Camp Ashraf were stripped of their weapons but declared “protected persons” under international law. Nevertheless, the current Iraqi government – which, unlike Saddam, is developing close ties with its Iranian neighbour – has repeatedly indicated that it will no longer tolerate a "terrorist organisation" to remain on Iraqi soil.
Iraqi security and hospital officials say three people were killed on April 8 after Iraqi troops entered the camp following repeated “provocations” from residents. The PMOI says 34 were killed and over 200 injured in a full-scale military assault. It is impossible to independently verify either toll because Iraqi security forces have denied access to the camp to journalists or other independent observers.
27 bodies in camp Ashraf that the PMOI says were killed in the April 8 clashes with the Iraqi military. The edits and annotations were added by members of the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran. Video posted on YouTube by cityofashraf.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.
"The soldiers were deliberately firing at camp residents, and especially targeting anyone who held a camera."
Shakaria Kia is a spokesperson for the People’s Mujahideen of Iran in Camp Ashraf. He challenges the assertions against his group made by our Iraqi Observer.
The residents of Camp Ashraf are refugees protected by the Geneva Convention, and any attack on us is a clear violation of international law. It is obvious that the attack was ordered by the highest levels of Iraqi command. People who say otherwise are simply seeking to shield Iraqi officials from prosecution. Maliki and his top generals should face trial in an international court for the crimes against humanity they committed in Ashraf.
There had been signs that an attack was coming in the days leading up to it, so on April 8, the morning of the attack, we were all posted in the streets, ready to defend our homes. At 4.45 am, the armed vehicles stormed the camp. The soldiers opened fire – live rounds – from the very start of the attack. It was awful. Several residents were run over by humvees in the assault, and two were killed. It was clear that the soldiers were deliberately firing at camp residents, especially targeting anyone who held a camera.
“The Iraqi government has denied a US military request to provide humanitarian medical assistance to people in the camp.”
So far, we have counted a total of 34 dead, including eight women. There are over 200 injured, and the toll could rise. There are not enough facilities nor medicine in the camp’s small clinic to treat the injured, and the Iraqi government has denied a US military request to provide humanitarian medical assistance.
We reject the label of terrorist organisation. We have not used force since 2003, and when we did in the past, it was only as a legitimate defence against a regime that oppressed our political movement and systematically targeted our members. Right now, the camp residents have no option but to remain in Iraq. We have indicated that we would be willing to return to Iran if we were guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of movement and protection from arbitrary arrest and torture, which is not the case for the moment. We would also be willing to be granted refugee status in an EU country, but so far none has accepted to do so.”
Another clip reportedly filmed by residents of camp Ashraf during the violence on April 8, 2011. The edits and annotations were added by members of the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran. Video posted on YouTube by supportashraf.
"The Iraqi government is subject to Tehran’s influence on one hand and to Washington’s on the other."
Hussein Ali, 28, is a communications engineer in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. His comment reflects widely held views in Iraq.
There are two opposite views in Iraq concerning the PMOI. some support their movement and think they should be granted refugee status in Iraq, while others – I would say the majority – are very much against them. This is because in 1991, during the failed revolution against Saddam Hussein [by ‘revolution’, Hussein Ali is referring to the first Gulf War], the Mujahideen fought alongside Saddam’s troops and killed many revolutionaries. As a result, many Shias, Kurds and Turkmenes, traditional Saddam opponents, are deeply resentful of the Mujahideen.
My personal view is that the group engages in terrorist activities, and should no longer be allowed to stay on Iraqi soil. The government is trying to evacuate the camps in a non-violent way to send the Mujahedeen back to Iran or to other host countries, and I think that is the right thing to do.
“I am convinced that Maliki didn’t order the attack on the camp”
The problem is that the Iraqi army today is largely uncontrolled by the central government. Soldiers obey local officers who act without orders. I am convinced that [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al] Maliki didn’t order the attack on the camp. Many members of the Iraqi military hate the Mujahideen, and were ready to attack at the slightest excuse.
The Iraqi government today is not independent and subject to opposing influences. On the one hand, it has close ties with Teheran, while on the other, it is close to Washington. Different members of the government lobby for tighter links with one or the other party. Maliki is in a difficult position. Iran is stepping up pressure for him to dismantle the Mujahideen camps, but he can’t use force because he doesn’t want to anger the US."
The above video was reportedly filmed by residents of camp Ashraf during the violence on April 8, 2011. The edits and annotations were added by members of the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran. Video posted on YouTube by supportashraf.