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U.S. offered assurances about Iranian exiles days before Iraqi raid

A deadly clash after Iraqi forces stormed the camp has sparked protests and calls for better protection for the 3,500 Iranian dissidents living at Camp Ashraf.

August 19, 2009|A Times Staff Writer

The Obama administration downplayed international fears about the safety of Iranian dissidents living at a camp in Iraq as recently as mid-July, days before a raid by Iraqi security forces killed 11 of the exiles and left scores wounded.

The deadly clash has sparked public protests in Washington and around the world, with dozens taking part in hunger strikes to emphasize demands that the Obama administration provide better protection for the exiles.

It also underscored some of the challenges of the administration's plan to wind down U.S. military involvement in Iraq and cede control to a government in Baghdad that may not adhere to U.S. commitments.

In a July 15 letter to a concerned British politician, the State Department had said U.S. officials were doing their "utmost" to ensure the safety of up to 3,500 Iranians living at Camp Ashraf in Iraq.

Until this year, U.S. forces had been protecting the Iranians, who are members of Mujahedin Khalq, an Iranian dissident group based in Iraq since the 1980s.

Because of the Mujahedin Khalq's history of violent resistance to the Islamic Republic, U.S. and European governments have classified it as a terrorist group. But the group says it renounced violence years ago, and European officials dropped the terrorist designation this year.

This year, the U.S. military handed over control of the camp to Iraqis as part of the security agreement reached in December between Washington and Baghdad, a decision protested by camp residents and their relatives and supporters living elsewhere.

Nonetheless, "U.S. military representatives are in daily contact with Camp Ashraf residents and continue to monitor their situation," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Richard J. Schmierer wrote in the letter, sent on behalf of President Obama to Robin Corbett, a member of the British House of Lords.

But in raids July 28 and 29, Iraqi security forces stormed the camp and clashed with the exiles. Iraqis said they wanted to take control of the camp and establish a police post, but camp residents pointed to pledges by top Iraqis to close down Camp Ashraf, as Tehran has asked Baghdad to do.

Widely circulated video shows nearby U.S. troops in several military vehicles observing the raid, with at least one taking photographs. But American officers in a white SUV are shown rolling up a window and driving away as Iranians, some wounded and bleeding, appealed for help.

State Department officials last week criticized Iraqi forces but did not return calls Tuesday concerning assurances given by the administration about the safety of exiles.

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