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Originally published July 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 29, 2009 at 8:15 AM

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Iraqi police flex muscles in raid on Iranian exiles

Iraqi troops and police carried out a bloody raid Tuesday on the camp of an Iranian opposition group that the United States has long sheltered...

The Washington Post

BAGHDAD — Iraqi troops and police carried out a bloody raid Tuesday on the camp of an Iranian opposition group that the United States has long sheltered, marking the Iraqi government's boldest move since it declared its sovereignty a month ago and offering the latest sign that American influence is waning as Iranian clout rises.

The operation, which caught U.S. officials off guard, coincided with a visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and analysts said it appeared designed to send a message of Iraqi independence.

The Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, has supplied information about Iran's nuclear program to the United States, but the group has long been an irritant to Iran, which has repeatedly asked the Iraqi government to expel MEK members.

The way Iraq deals with the group is widely seen as a bellwether of whether Iraq is more heavily swayed by Iran or by the U.S.

Leaders of the group said Iraqi troops fatally shot four residents Tuesday night and wounded scores. U.S. officials have long opposed a violent takeover of the camp, and the Iraqi government's willingness to carry out the raid while Gates was in the country startled some American officials.

"We didn't know they were going to do this," Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Tuesday night. "We had no prior warning."

Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities on June 30, Iraqi commanders have acted with unprecedented autonomy, and, in some areas, they have actively sought to marginalize their American counterparts.

Kenneth Katzman, a senior Iraq expert at Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress, called the raid "very serious" and said it was disturbing that it coincided with Gates' 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. Residents of Camp Ashraf, home to more than 3,000 people, said in phone interviews that hundreds of Iraqi troops and police officers gathered outside the camp in the afternoon. Driving armored Humvees donated by the U.S. military, Iraqi troops in riot gear barreled through one of the camp's gates and clashed with residents forming a human shield, according to residents.

The troops used batons, fire hoses, pepper spray, sound grenades and riot shields to plow through the hundreds-strong crowd, residents said. Group leaders said that at least 300 people were wounded in the clashes. Their accounts could not be independently corroborated. Photographs and video clips that camp residents e-mailed to reporters showed troops beating residents. Other photos and videos showed bloodied men being stitched up at the camp's clinic.

A small contingent of U.S. soldiers remained at a base outside the camp after the Iraqi government assumed nominal control of it Jan. 1.

"The Americans were at the scene, but they didn't move a finger," said Behzad Saffari, one of the camp's leaders, who claimed to have witnessed the clashes. "They just stood there taking pictures."

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The U.S. military would not confirm that American soldiers were present.

Iraqi officials said the operation's goal was to establish a police station inside the camp, widely seen as the first step toward evicting residents. The government considers the group a cult with a terrorist past and resents that the U.S. protected the MEK camp for six years.

Founded by Iranian leftists, the group opposed Iran's U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and took part in the 1979 revolution that brought a clerical regime to power, but its blend of Marxism and secular Islamism eventually pitted it against the mullahs in Iran.

Many of camp Ashraf's residents have citizenship in a Western country, including some in the United States. Saddam Hussein allowed the Iranian exiles to establish their base in Diyala in 1986 to launch raids into Iran during the two neighbors' eight-year war.

U.S. troops disarmed the Iranian fighters and confined them to Camp Ashraf after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, promising members would be treated as "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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