WASHINGTON — The Obama administration criticized Iraqi security forces this week, saying they botched an attempt last month to establish a police station in a refugee settlement for Iranian dissidents, resulting in clashes that claimed the lives of at least eight of the refugees.
Several other of the Iranians were seriously injured and 36 have been reported by humanitarian organizations to be in Iraqi custody and at risk of being forcibly returned to Iran, where they are considered likely to be mistreated.
U.S. officials said little about the raid before Wednesday, when the State Department called it "an avoidable tragedy." Elaborating on Thursday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Iraqi attempt to establish control of the camp "was not executed well."
"We understand what happened was a mistake," Crowley said. "Iraq was trying to extend its sovereignty to Camp Ashraf. We understood what they were trying to do. They did not do it well."
About 3,500 Iranian refugees reside in the settlement known as Camp Ashraf as members of Mujahedin Khalq, an Iranian dissident group based in Iraq since the 1980s.
Because of its attacks on Iran, the group for years was considered a terrorist organization by the United States and some European nations. European officials dropped the terrorist designation this year.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group agreed to disarm in exchange for protection by American troops, which lasted until the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement in December returned the camp to Baghdad's control.
Iraqi forces raided the camp July 28, saying they were trying to set up a police station there. Camp residents fear the Iraqis' goal is to dissolve the camp at the behest of Iran, which publicly praised the raid.
Some Iranian Americans are demanding that U.S. troops retake control of the camp to ensure the safety of its residents.
"The United States bears a moral and legal responsibility for them," said Majid Roshani, spokesman for the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents.
About 100 Iranian Americans have maintained a nightly vigil at the White House since the incursion, with up to 35 of them conducting a hunger strike in protest of the Iraqi raid.