KIRKUK, IRAQ // Residents at an Iraqi camp for Iranian dissidents have started a hunger strike to protest against alleged human rights abuses inflicted by Iraqi security forces this week, amid fears that the Iranian regime’s influence is growing in the Iraqi government.
On Tuesday, Iraqi police entered Camp Ashraf in Diyala province, where, according to residents, they attacked an unarmed group of people with machine guns and batons, killing 12 and seriously wounding 500.
Iraqi security forces initially denied the casualty figures, but on Thursday, Ali al Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, acknowledged that six Iranians had been killed and promised an investigation.
“We were empty-handed, with only slogans,” Shahriar Kia, a camp press officer, said. “We were shouting that Ashraf is a city of peace, and they started shooting and beating us.”
Iraqi police are now in position at junctions within the camp, which is around six square kilometres, and in control of the squares and public places, he said. They were restricting movement, said Mr Kia. “They don’t let people move around. They have shot car windows and tyres as people were driving.”
Mr al Dabbagh said a police station had been set up and that there were 1,000 Iraqi troops inside the camp. It was the setting up of a police post inside the camp that sparked the first clashes on Tuesday.
The camp has been home to a group called the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (PMOI), or Mujahedeen-e Khalq, since 1986, when Saddam Hussein gave them refuge there during the Iran-Iraq war. The group, which was set up to oppose the Shah but then fell out with Ayatollah Khomeini, carried out a series of bombings, attacking the Islamic Republic of Iran’s leadership, and is classified as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US.
In 2003, after the fall of Saddam, members of the camp say they handed over their weapons voluntarily to US soldiers, who then protected the camp during conflict in Iraq.
However, at the end of last year, after the Status of Forces Agreement was signed between the US and Iraqi governments, the US handed over control of the camp and its residents to Iraqi troops.
Under the new Iraqi regime, relations with the Iranian government are far friendlier than they were under Saddam, and concerns were raised over the likely treatment of the camp’s 3,500 or so residents.
Residents claim that since Iraqi forces took charge, food and medical supplies have been restricted, and visiting family members and lawyers have not been allowed in.
The clashes this week have stoked fears that the residents will be evicted from the camp and returned to Iran, where they would probably face arrest amid an extensive clampdown on the opposition movement since the disputed June 12 election.
“This is the Iranian regime who is trying to survive by destroying opposition,” said Mr Kia. “The same thing is happening here as on the streets of Tehran – killing and beating.”
Residents had begun a hunger strike, he said, which they would maintain until the UN and other international groups came to Ashraf, and residents were allowed to see their lawyers.
“I think that the Iranian government, which is facing a summer of discontent back home, is using its influence over the Iraqi government to send a message that it is still in control,” said Maysun al Damluji, an MP of the secular National List coalition.
The Iranian authorities, she said, were trying to ensure that parties sympathetic to them win in Iraqi elections scheduled for January 2010. They will, she said, “do everything in their power to bring Iraqi political entities that are loyal or close to Iran’s conservatives to power in Iraq … they will also rid Iraq of all of Iran’s opponents, not only in Ashraf, but even outside it.” She described Ashraf as a “simple exercise of muscle flexing”.
Iran’s parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, has welcomed the seizure of the camp, describing the action as “praiseworthy” albeit “rather late”.
At the time of the handover of the camp to Iraqi forces, the US Embassy said in a statement. “The Government of Iraq has provided the US government written assurances of humane treatment of the Camp Ashraf residents in accordance with Iraq’s Constitution, laws, and international obligations.”
Some US forces would remain at Ashraf, the statement said, “to assist the Government of Iraq in carrying out its assurances of humane treatment of the residents of Camp Ashraf”. Although US military sources confirmed that extra medical teams had been summoned to Ashraf during the fighting, an embassy spokesman maintained that, “this is a matter for the government of Iraq”. “The US government is engaged in the issue, we have monitors,” said the spokesman. A state department spokesman on Thursday said embassy officials had met with representatives of the government of Iraq. “We wanted to stress the importance to the government … the importance of Iraq fulfilling its commitment to the US government to treat the camp residents humanely.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called on Iraq to “fulfil its obligations to show restraint”.
Mr Kia, speaking from Ashraf, said that, “since yesterday [US forces] were witnesses of killings, and beating people, and they didn’t do anything.”
The PMOI released video footage on YouTube of what it claimed was Iraqi attacks on camp residents.
The governor of Diyala province, Abdul Nasir al-Mahdawi, expressed unhappiness at the treatment of the residents of the camp in his province, saying that he had set up a committee to investigate the issue.
"The residents in Camp Ashraf are unarmed," said Mr Mahdawi, "so we are not thinking about the possibilities of any problems being caused by them."
He was not consulted on the plans to enter the camp, but when he heard of the actions of the Iraqi security forces, he called on them to, "treat the residents of Ashraf in accordance with their human rights," and not impose the police station on them.
"I am not happy with the recent events at Ashraf," he continued, saying that he would write to the central government once his committee had completed its investigation. The camp was, he said, "out of our hands."
* The National