By Jane Arraf
Rockets tore into a former US military base near the Baghdad airport before dawn on Saturday, killing at least five members of a controversial Iranian dissident group and wounding almost 40 other people, according to the UN.
The group, the Mujahadeen al-Khalq or People’s Mujahadeen, said a sixth member died of injuries in what they called an Iranian-sponsored attack facilitated by the Iraqi government.
“This is an area very close to the airport surrounded by military units…How could someone get close enough and have the freedom and liberty to shoot 30 missiles into the camp?” said Hossain Madani, a camp leader reached by phone.
He said the six dead included five men and one woman, all of whom he said had completed interviews with the UN refugee agency and were awaiting resettlement.
The top UN official in Iraq said he was “deeply shocked” by the attack.
“It is now important for the government to form an investigation committee and to ensure that safety and security are ensured in the future because it is very important that the resettlement process goes on,” Martin Kobler, special representative to the UN secretary general, told al-Jazeera.
Kobler last year negotiated an agreement between the MEK and the Iraqi government to close Camp Ashraf, the MEK’s last remaining base, after 28 members of the group were killed in an operation by the Iraqi army to force them to leave.
The agreement includes a commitment by the Iraqi government to ensure the group’s security. As part of the agreement, all but 100 of the group’s members were relocated to Camp Liberty – renamed “Camp Freedom” by the Iraqi government.
The organisation’s members live in the trailers left behind by the US military in a compound guarded by Iraqi police.
The group of about 3,000 people is the last remaining legacy of the heavily armed opposition invited to Iraq by Saddam Hussein to help fight Iran. After the 2003 invasion, they gave up their weapons but remained at Camp Ashraf, close to the Iranian border.
The Iranian government has put pressure on Iraq since 2003 to close the camp and Iraqi officials have emphasised that the MEK members have no legal status in Iraq. Designation by the UN refugee agency as persons in need of protection now allows them to be resettled in other countries.
The US state department recently agreed to remove the MEK from its list of terrorist organisations, a move that was believed to have been made in response to the Paris-based organisation agreeing to close Camp Ashraf.
Hundreds of the group’s members have ties to Germany, France and other countries. While many of them have devoted their lives to fighting the Iranian government, hundreds of them who grew up abroad have never been to Iran. The organisation keeps very tight control on its members, limiting access to families outside. Men and women are segregated and many of those inside the camp have children raised by MEK members abroad.
Rocket and mortar attacks against the airport complex have been rare since US forces pulled out of the country two years ago. Extensive defense systems were installed at the airport itself to detect and deter attacks.
‘Impossible to prevent’
Iraqi security spokesmen said the rockets had been launched from Abu Ghraib, a Sunni area in west Baghdad. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said it would have been impossible to prevent.
“It’s true we are responsible for protecting the perimeter of the camp but we can’t control indirect fire,” Mohammed al-Askari told al-Jazeera. “Even if it’s a bird that’s been attacked they will accuse the Iraqi government. The country is being threatened by al-Qaeda, Baathists and militias and we are doing our job.”
The organisation said the attack was proof they should be allowed to return to Camp Ashraf.
“Camp Liberty was a failed project,” said Madani.
In the three decades since Saddam Hussein invited in the MEK, the organisation turned the camp in Diyala province into a small city with a college, a museum, gardens and their own cemetery. For the Paris-based MEK, it was the last remnant of their once significant presence in Iraq.
In the agreement to close the camp, 100 of its members have remained there until the group reaches agreement with the Iraqi government on selling off what the MEK says are $500m in assets including buildings, and “Diyala authorities have called it a pearl of the desert,” said Madani.
The disagreement over the assets and hostility between the MEK and the Iraqi government threatens to further complicate the MEK’s withdrawal from Camp Ashraf.
“The United Nations for obvious reasons does not get involved in buying or selling their property,” said Kobler.