For years, Iraq's increasingly pro-Iranian government has threatened to evict the 3,400 Iranian members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a fiercely anti-Tehran group, from its sprawling former military base at Camp Ashraf, some 40 miles (65 km) from Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and 50 miles (80 km) from the Iranian border. Despite the heated rhetoric, however, Baghdad has never fully articulated how it will uproot the exiles who refuse to leave their decades-old enclave beyond saying it will not forcibly do so. That has now been given the lie, after an Iraqi military raid on the base last week left some 34 people dead and dozens wounded, according to the U.N.
The dead include at least seven women, according to Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "Most of those killed appear to have been shot. However, several suffered other types of injuries that would suggest they were hit by vehicles," he told TIME from Geneva. "It has been extremely difficult to gain access to the camp, and many details about the exact circumstances surrounding this tragedy remain unknown at this point. The Iraqi authorities and the [MEK] are giving wildly differing accounts."
The Iraqi military, which rings the perimeter of the 19-sq.-mi. (49 sq km) camp, denies using firearms and says only three residents were killed when they threw themselves in front of military vehicles. Major General Ali Ghaidan, commander of Iraqi ground forces, told a group of reporters briskly bused to the vicinity of (but not into) Camp Ashraf that violence broke out after security forces sought to give parts of the camp back to farmers who allegedly owned it before Iraq's then dictator Saddam Hussein gave the land to the MEK in the 1980s. He insisted that only batons and water cannons were used. Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh sought to explain the shooting deaths by telling Agence France-Presse that "the dead were killed by their own guards because they were trying to escape."
"The Iraqi military were well aware of the risks attached to launching an operation like this in Ashraf," said Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement. "There is no possible excuse for this number of casualties. There must be a full, independent and transparent inquiry, and any person found responsible for use of excessive force should be prosecuted."
Shahriar Kia, an MEK representative in Camp Ashraf, said the attack started before dawn and involved "armored vehicles, commando forces, motorized, engineering and antiriot forces, with the help of police and rapid-deployment forces." "The attack lasted more than seven hours," he told TIME from Iraq on Friday, April 15. The Iraqi forces continue to occupy the northern part of the camp, he said, adding that he fears they are preparing another attack.
The camp is a major irritant to Baghdad's ties with Tehran and is perhaps one of the strangest holdovers from the dramatic shift in relations between Iraq, its once bitter foe Iran and their former and current mutual enemy the United States. The MEK, which is also known by the acronym MKO and by the name the People's Mujahedin, was given Camp Ashraf by Hussein during his bitter eight-year war with neighboring Iran. He funded and armed the group, which launched attacks on Iran from Iraq.
Although the camp was disarmed in 2003 by the U.S. military, both Baghdad and Washington consider the MEK a terrorist organization. Washington has blacklisted the group for its attacks against U.S. interests in the 1970s and '80s. Iraqi officials have frequently said the Iranian exiles are "illegal aliens" with no legal right to remain in the country and that they must travel to either Iran or another country. They have repeatedly warned that they will close the camp, which was under U.S. military protection until 2009, when responsibility was transferred to Iraq under a comprehensive bilateral agreement. Deadlines for closing Camp Ashraf have come and gone. This week Iraq said the group must leave the country by the end of the year.
Camp Ashraf, with its gender-segregated dormitories, manicured lawns, flower beds and tree-lined streets, is the only home many of the residents have known. The MEK maintains firm control over its members, preventing them from marrying and restricting or preventing contact with family elsewhere.
The standoff is unlikely to end well or soon, given that the MEK won't even consider relocating within Iraq (the government wants to move the group away from the Iranian border), let alone overseas, unless strict (and some say unrealistic) conditions are met. Kia, the MEK representative, says the group will consider returning to Iran if "freedom of speech and political activities are guaranteed," an impossibility for a group determined to bring down Tehran's clerical leaders. "The second option is to transfer all of the residents to the U.S. or one of the E.U. member states," he says.
In his statement, U.N. commissioner Pillay said, "I am well aware that this is a contentious group with a complicated history, but leaving them to fester in Camp Ashraf was never going to be a solution. Clearly, since they are unable to go back to Iran and are in danger in Iraq, the solution is most likely to involve moving them to third countries. I urge governments to take the necessary pragmatic and generous steps to resolve what is an untenable situation."
The recent raid wasn't the first instance of bloodshed between the Iraqi military and the camp's residents since the U.S. handed over responsibility for it, but it was the most serious. In mid-2009, Iraqi security forces briefly tried to wrench control of the MEK base from its leaders after the Iraqis were denied a request to establish a police station inside the camp. At least six residents were killed and dozens wounded in the ensuing clashes. Things can rapidly devolve into violence once again, given growing Iraqi frustration with the organization, whose members exhibit a cultlike obedience and willingness to sacrifice themselves for their cause.
The MEK's slick and efficient p.r. machine is well primed to exploit the situation. It has a ready list of European and American political figures eager to defend it (and who are looking for reasons to argue against its terrorist designation in the U.S.). These include former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, former National Security Adviser General James Jones and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. After a legal battle, the E.U. removed the organization from its terrorist list in 2009; the U.K. did so in 2008.
While the U.N. continues to try to determine the details of this most recent raid, the rhetoric continues to be ratcheted up by both sides. "The crime committed by [Iraqi Premier Nouri al-]Maliki and the Iranian regime clearly indicates Maliki's filthy intention to satisfy Tehran's mullahs, to whom he owes his renewed premiership," Kia says. Things are unlikely to calm down anytime soon.