Deadly violence erupted at a disputed 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 said more than 50 were killed and accused the Iraqi government. Baghdad said an internal dispute was to blame.
The deaths occurred at Camp Ashraf, a Saddam Hussein-era community northeast of Baghdad that had been home to about 100 members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. The group, known by the acronym MEK, opposes Iran’s clerical regime. The Iraqi government wants to shut the camp and move MEK members out of the country.
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. The spokesman, Shahin Gobadi, said some of those killed were found handcuffed behind the back.
Gobadi said that 52 people inside the camp were killed, and he provided photos allegedly from the scene that showed the bodies of several people who appeared to have been killed with gunshots. It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the photos.
A police official in Diyala province, where Camp Ashraf is located, corroborated the account of an Iraqi raid on the camp overnight, and said that at least 19 people were killed. He agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, confirmed the deaths of some camp residents.
However, he said a preliminary investigation suggests they died as a result of infighting among camp residents, and he denied that Iraqi forces were involved. Authorities are still trying to determine the number of casualties, he said.
Gobadi dismissed the government spokesman’s claim as “preposterous” and “absolute lies.”
The United Nations and the United States both condemned the violence, though neither ascribed blame.
“The priority for the Iraqi government is to provide immediate medical assistance to the injured and to ensure their security and safety against any violence from any side,” said Gyorgy Busztin, the acting U.N. envoy to Iraq.
Busztin said that the U.N. mission “is using all possible means to conduct its own assessment of the situation.”
The U.S. Embassy voiced support for the U.N. fact-finding efforts, and demanded that those found responsible be held accountable.
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.
Iraq’s current Shiite-led government, which has strengthened ties with neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran, considers the MEK’s presence in Iraq illegal and wants its followers out of the country. It has been working with the U.N. to resettle MEK members, but the process has been slow.
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard welcomed news of the MEK members’ deaths, which it called “divine revenge.” In its statement, carried by the official IRNA news agency, the Guard noted the MEK’s alliance with Saddam and expressed hope that their deaths would please the relatives of their past victims.
Iranian state television took note of the attack too, reporting at one point that 23 MEK members were killed by “the Iraqi people and mujahedeen.” It gave no sources for the information and didn’t air any footage.
Previous Iraqi raids on the camp, including one in April 2011, claimed dozens of lives.
Camp Ashraf was once home to more than 3,000 MEK followers, but most moved to a former U.S. military base on the outskirts of Baghdad last year while the U.N. works to resettle them abroad.
The Baghdad-area camp, known as Camp Liberty, has since been targeted by militants in rocket attacks that have killed 10 people and injured many more, according to the MEK.
The MEK last month accused the Iraqi authorities of deliberately cutting off water and electricity to Camp Ashraf, a charged denied by Georges Bakoos, who oversees the MEK issue for the Iraqi government.
He said in an interview last week that authorities would be moving ahead with court proceedings to evict the last Camp Ashraf holdouts, possibly as soon as in the next few weeks.
Bakoos could not be reached for comment Sunday.
A total of 162 MEK members have been resettled abroad so far, mostly in Albania.