Many dead as Iraqi forces storm Iranian exiles' camp

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The Independent Online

Iraqi security forces have largely gained control of an Iranian exiles' camp in Iraq after fighting which left as many as eight dead and 400 wounded.

The assault on Camp Ashraf, 80 miles north of Baghdad, is the latest episode in the strange history of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a cult-like organisation that has in the past been allied both to Saddam Hussein and the US in its long battle with Tehran's Islamic government.

Three days ago Iraqi soldiers stormed into Ashraf, which is 19 square miles in extent and home to 3,500 people, with the purpose of establishing a police station and raising the Iraqi flag. Though the MEK lost their guns when the US occupied Iraq in 2003, its members fought fiercely and two policemen were among those killed, one hit on the head and another stabbed in the neck, according to AFP. The Iraqi government says six of the camp's inmates also died.

The final takeover of the camp by the Iraqi government came after the start of the American withdrawal under the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the US and Iraq last year. Although the US military had disarmed the MEK, whose arsenal once included tanks and heavy weapons, they had protected them as a source of information about what was happening in Iran.

Iraqi sources claim that the CIA did not have direct contact with the MEK, which the US State Department lists as a "terrorist" organisation, but dealt with the group through independent contractors, who are retired intelligence officers that still had their previous security clearance.

There has long been little sign that the MEK has support within Iran, but it has been treated as a serious force by the Iranian government since the Iranian revolution of 1979. President Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, and other senior Iranians have long demanded that Camp Ashraf be closed. The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, this week said the Iraqi move was "praiseworthy" though "a little late".

The MEK was founded in 1965 as an Islamic leftist group opposed to the Shah, capitalism and Western imperialism. It played a significant role in the success of the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, but was then suppressed by Ayatollah Khomeini in a ferocious campaign that included bomb attacks.

The MEK, which demanded total commitment and devotion to a leader, like Peru's Shining Path movement, moved to Iraq where it became an auxiliary military force to Saddam Hussein's army during the Iran-Iraq war.

A military offensive it launched in the final days of the conflict in 1988, when it fielded a force of some 7,000 soldiers, was driven back with heavy losses. To the surprise of the group's leaders its troops were not greeted as liberators in Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the mass execution of members of the movement and other radicals in prison in Iran.