UN urges safety for Iranian exiles after 52 killed

Associated Press
FILE -- In this file photograph taken on Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, a woman waits by the main gate of Camp Ashraf in Khalis, north of Baghdad, Iraq. The United Nations called on the Iraqi government Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 to step up protection of the dozens of Iranian exiles left in a camp north of Baghdad after confirming that over 50 people were killed there earlier this week. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
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FILE -- In this file photograph taken on Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, a woman waits by the main gate of Camp Ashraf in Khalis, north of Baghdad, Iraq. The United Nations called on the Iraqi government Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 to step up protection of the dozens of Iranian exiles left in a camp north of Baghdad after confirming that over 50 people were killed there earlier this week. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

BAGHDAD (AP) — The United Nations called on the Iraqi government Tuesday to do all it can to protect the dozens of Iranian exiles left in a camp north of Baghdad after confirming that 52 people were killed there earlier this week.

Iraq's government, which is dominated by Shiites hostile to the former regime who have been bolstering ties with neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran, wants to shut the facility known as Camp Ashraf and transfer thousands of Iranian exiles living there and in another camp out of the country. It considers their presence in Iraq illegal, and it is growing impatient with a slow-moving U.N.-coordinated effort to resettle them abroad.

Some 3,000 camp residents reluctantly moved to a former U.S. military base on Baghdad's outskirts last year. That new facility, known as Camp Liberty, is meant to be a temporary way station while the U.N. works to resettle the exiles abroad. It has been repeatedly targeted by militants in deadly rocket attacks.

The presence of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which opposes Iran's clerical regime, has long been an irritant for the Iraqi government and posed an obstacle in U.S.-Iraqi relations for years after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, who had granted the exiles refuge.

The U.S. military guarded the camp after the invasion under an agreement that made its 3,400 residents "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions, and the exiles long worried they would be increasingly targeted as the Americans withdrew from the country. The last U.S. troops, except for a small number of personnel attached to the American Embassy, left in December 2011.

The dilemma shot to the fore again on Sunday when MEK supporters say Iraqi forces attacked the Saddam Hussein-era facility and killed 52 residents. Iraqi officials denied the country's forces were involved, saying the killings were the result of an internal dispute.

Before Sunday, only about 100 MEK followers remained in Camp Ashraf to protect and sell property that had been accumulated by the residents over the years.

Previous Iraqi raids on the compound, including one in April 2011, claimed dozens of residents' lives.

Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the MEK's parent organization, the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, alleged Tuesday that Iraqi forces were preparing to attack the remaining residents and that they had posted Humvees and armed personnel at all of the camp gates. MEK representatives say another seven people cannot be found and are believed to have been kidnapped.

The police chief of Diyala province, where the camp is located, denied any siege of Camp Ashraf. Iraqi forensic teams had tried to enter the camp to carry out an investigation but residents refused to allow them in and so they withdrew, said the official, Maj. Gen. Jamil al-Shimmari.

The U.N. said members of a delegation that traveled to the compound, 95 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of the Iraqi capital, on Monday saw the bodies of 52 victims with apparent gunshot wounds, confirming death tolls provided by backers of the exiles and an Iraqi official.

The U.N., U.S. and European countries have condemned the bloodshed and called for an investigation, though they have not ascribed blame for the killings.

The U.N.'s Iraq mission said in a statement Tuesday that the camp "does not provide an adequate level of security for its residents."

"Until the camp's residents are relocated to safety, all measures must be taken to protect their lives," said Gyorgy Busztin, the deputy U.N. envoy to Iraq.

A spokeswoman said the U.N. had nothing to report on the MEK's allegations of another pending attack.

"We are constantly in contact with the Iraqi government on their responsibility in providing safety and security to the residents," U.N. spokeswoman Eliana Nabaa said.

Ali al-Moussawi, the spokesman for Iraq's prime minister, said Camp Ashraf's size and location make it difficult to secure fully. He rejected the idea of sending more forces to protect the site, saying that Iraq needs its security forces to protect the country's cities, which are being hit by frequent terrorist attacks.

On Tuesday, a wave of coordinated car bombings and other attacks in Baghdad and other cities killed more than 60 people, according to authorities.

The MEK carried out a series of bombings and assassinations inside Iran in the 1980s and fought alongside Iraqi forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Saddam granted several thousand of its members sanctuary inside Iraq.

The group says it renounced violence in 2001 and camp residents were disarmed by U.S. troops after the invasion. The U.S. considered the MEK a terrorist group until last year, and cooperation in leaving Camp Ashraf was a key factor in reversing that designation.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has announced the formation of a special committee to investigate what happened at the camp. MEK supporters say they have no faith that probe will produce any impartial findings.

Efforts to resettle the exiles have been slow because the U.N. has had difficulty securing commitments from member states to accept the exiles and because some of them are reluctant to be separated from their comrades.

A total of 198 former residents of the two camps have been resettled abroad so far, most to Albania.

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Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting.

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