September 24, 2017

Iraqi Police Crack Down on Opposition Camp

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service

BAGHDAD, July 24 — Iraqi police officers and soldiers on Tuesday raided a camp near Baghdad that is home to an Iranian opposition group that has supplied intelligence information to U.S. forces but that has long been an irritant to Iran.

Officers used batons, hoses, pepper spray and sound grenades during the raid at Camp Ashraf, home to the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq. The United States had protected the camp until about three months ago, and the raid came a day after the Iraqi government announced it would assume complete responsibility of the camp and vowed to “protect the people inside the base.”

The raid appears to have caught U.S. officials off guard, and it marks one of the boldest moves by the Iraqi government since U.S. forces nominally withdrew from the country’s cities late last month. The crackdown coincided with a surprise visit to Iraq by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The opposition group members have provided U.S. intelligence officials with information about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials have urged the Iraqi government to treat the group’s members humanely — and the U.S. pressure on the Iraqi government is widely believed to have prevented it from taking aggressive steps to expel the residents, as Iran has long urged it to do.

Kenneth Katzman, a senior Iraq expert at Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress, called the reports of the raid “very serious,” and said that it was disturbing that it coincided with Gates’s visit.

“It suggests that, as the Iraqi government is increasingly independent of the United States, it might use this freedom of action to ‘settle scores’ with its opponents or act on behalf of outside benefactors,” he said in an e-mail. “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 Iraq.”

Apparently realizing that their continued presence at Ashraf was untenable, the group’s leaders announced late Monday that they were willing to return to Iran if Iran, the United States, the United Nations and Iraq promised in writing that they would not be persecuted. The statement marked the first time the group suggested a large number of its members would be willing to return home.

“Finally, what we were expecting happened today,” Shariar Kia, a spokesman for the Iranian group, said in a phone interview from the camp. “It’s a very savage attack. We are under siege.”

Kia said Iraqi police officials detained nine of the group’s leaders. He said at least 20 were wounded, some gravely, as they formed a human shield to try to block the incursion.

As hundreds of Iraqi police officials dressed in riot gear approached the front gate in U.S.-donated armored Humvees, Kia said, residents lined up at the front gate and chanted: “This is our home, stop the siege!”

Residents said the Iraqis plowed through the gate in their vehicles. The camp is home to more than 3,000 people, including many who hold dual citizenship or permanent residency in Europe, Canada and the United States.

“They sprayed the residents with hot water and beat them with batons,” said Safa Mohammed, a resident. “They beat them with rocks. We tried to push them back, but, as you know, we don’t have any weapons,” he said.