CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq — Iraq security forces raided the settlement of an Iranian exile group that the Shiite-led government has long tried to oust and at least 10 people were killed in the pre-dawn clashes Friday, officials said.
The People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran exiles jeer Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a puppet of Tehran, partly because the Shiite premier has sought to close their camp in Iraq's northeast Diyala province over their ties to former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Tensions boiled over this week when the Iraqi army moved new troops near Camp Ashraf, prompting its residents to pelt soldiers with stones and throw themselves in front of military trucks. About an hour before dawn Friday, the army stormed the camp, hurling smoke bombs at a crowd of about 100 masked people and chasing them with Humvees.
The exiles claimed 31 residents were killed, while the Iraqi general who ordered the raid denied that anybody died. U.S. and U.N. observers were unable to independently verify any casualties.
But two officials at the hospital in Baqouba, Diyala's capital, said 10 exiles were killed and 39 wounded in the clashes. Additionally, five Iraqi soldiers and one policeman also were injured, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Iraqi Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan said he ordered the crackdown after his troops were provoked. But signaling the government's intent to edge out the exiles, Ghaidan also said the military seized land in Ashraf's northeast corner and intends to give it to nearby Iraqi farmers.
"Everything is normal inside the camp," Ghaidan said in an interview Friday afternoon. "Our troops are outside, and we are not near the residential areas. Everything is stable."
Ashraf resident Shahriar Kia said that was not true and described an ongoing standoff between the exiles and soldiers on either end of the camp's main street.
"They have attacked our homes and looted them," Kia said. "People are standing out on the street to protect their homes."
The People's Mujahedeen, which seeks the overthrow of Tehran's clerical rulers, has been labeled everything from a cult to a terrorist organization – although one that has provided the U.S. with intelligence on Iran. The group says it renounced violence in 2001, after carrying out bloody bombings and assassinations in Iran in the 1980s.
Also known by its Farsi name the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the group is the militant wing of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran. The U.S. considers it a terrorist organization although the European Union removed it from its terror list two years ago.
At a U.N. Security Council meeting Friday on the situation in Iraq, Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Hamid Al-Bayati said he didn't have information on Thursday's incident but he told member that the Iraqi government considers the people in Camp Ashraf as refugees and "will not force them" to go back to Iran.
"But it will encourage them to go to a third country," he said.
Many of the residents of Camp Ashraf hold Iranian passports along with U.S. or European citizenship.
The camp, a 30-square-mile compound in the desert, is located about 60 miles (95 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad. The exiles have built it into an oasis of well-kept gardens, water fountains and palm trees along marked-out streets, where the residents live in barracks-like housing segregated by sex.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said security forces "did not use weapons" during the raid. He said the seized land was located outside the camp, and was merely being returned to the farmers who had owned it before the exiles moved in during Saddam's regime.
"It is their land and we are allowing them to use it," al-Dabbagh said.
Camp residents described a dire picture of the melee, and supplied a six-minute video purportedly taken early Friday that showed military Humvees flying the Iraqi flag chasing down about 100 stone-throwing masked people in an open area.
At least one person in the crowd was seen hit by a Humvee, and an Iraqi soldier was seen firing from his AK-47 machine gun although his target was not clear. The video also shows at least six people lying on a the ground, and a dozen of blood-soaked men being treated by doctors.
"This is a massacre, a catastrophe," said Behzad Saffari, who has lived at Ashraf for nine years and acts as the camp's legal adviser.
Iraqi troops refused to let an Associated Press reporter near where the clashes took place, and ordered him out of the camp after briefly being allowed in through the main gate. Security forces also blocked public access to the Baqouba hospital, although ambulances raced between the camp and the emergency room for much of the day.
A U.S. Army officer at the camp Friday looked very angry when talking to the Iraqi commander at the scene. Asked why, an Iraqi translator accompanying the U.S. officer replied: "Because of the high casualties."
Ashraf's 3,400 residents are legally considered "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions. At a news conference in Rome, the People's Mujahedeen blasted the U.S. for failing to stop the assault or otherwise intervene despite the protections. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to northern Iraq, confirmed that American forces were nearby during the raid and planned to offer medical assistance to the exiles.
But under a 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, U.S. troops handed off the responsibility protecting Ashraf to the Iraqi government.
"I urge the Iraqi government to show restraint and live up to their commitments to treat Ashraf residents in accordance with Iraqi law and international obligations," Gates said in Mosul.
Jakes reported from Baghdad. Also contributing: AP Writers Sinan Salaheddin and Bushra Juhi in Baghdad, Robert Burns in Mosul, Iraq, Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, and Alba Tobella in Rome.