BAGHDAD – Deadly violence erupted at a contentious Iranian exile camp inside Iraq early Sunday, leaving international observers scrambling to determine the cause of the bloodshed and the number of casualties.
The dissidents alleged that more than 50 were killed and accused the Iraqi government. Baghdad said an internal dispute was to blame. And the United Nations mission to Iraq, which has been closely involved in trying to find a viable long-term solution for the dissidents, acknowledges it does not have a clear picture of what happened.
“The only thing we can confirm is there are a lot of casualties,” said Eliana Nabaa, the spokeswoman for the U.N. mission to Iraq. “How, why, when? It’s difficult to assess.”
If the exiles’ claims of the number of casualties are proved true, it would mark a stunning blow for the remaining core of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq members still living at Camp Ashraf. The Saddam Hussein-era community northeast of Baghdad had been home to only about 100 members of the MEK before Sunday’s events.
The MEK opposes Iran’s clerical regime and until last year was labeled a terrorist group by the United States. Thousands of other MEK members who had been living in Camp Ashraf agreed to move to a Baghdad-area camp last year. They remain stuck in a country that does not want them as a process to resettle them abroad slowly drags on.
A statement issued by the U.N. in New York said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deplores events at Camp Ashraf that “reportedly left 47 killed,” though the U.N. cautioned that figure had not been confirmed.
A spokesman for the MEK’s parent organization, the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, alleged that those killed died in a raid launched by Iraqi security forces early Sunday. Spokesman Shahin Gobadi said some of those killed were found with hands cuffed behind their backs.
Gobadi said 52 people inside the camp were killed, and he provided photos allegedly from the scene that showed several people that appeared to have been killed with gunshots. It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the photos.
Iraqi officials offered conflicting accounts of what happened.
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, said a preliminary investigation suggests several camp residents died as a result of infighting inside the facility. He denied that Iraqi forces were involved in the violence and said authorities are still trying to determine the number of casualties.
Gobadi dismissed the government spokesman’s claim as “preposterous” and “absolute lies.”
Maj. Gen. Jamil al-Shimari, a provincial police chief in Diyala who oversees the external protection of the camp, reported at least 24 people killed. He said Iraqi forces stationed outside heard gunshots coming from inside the camp and said there appeared to be “some kind of struggle among the residents.” He denied involvement and said his forces at no point entered the camp itself.
An intelligence official involved in helping secure the perimeter of the camp reported 19 killed and said the clashes involving Iraqi forces broke out when camp residents tried to attack them. A police official in Diyala province, where Camp Ashraf is located, offered a similar casualty figure. They agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.
The United Nations and the United States both condemned the violence.
The MEK fought alongside Iraqi forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were granted sanctuary inside Iraq by Saddam. The group renounced violence in 2001 and was taken off the U.S. terrorism list last September.