Iraq Cracks Down On Iranian Dissident Group

Members of an Iranian opposition group have been complaining of a deadly crackdown by Iraqi authorities. The People's Mujahideen, known by its initials MEK, has lived in a cloistered camp inside Iraq for decades and been under U.S. military protection until the beginning of this year. This week, some members of the group were killed when Iraqi police tried to enter the camp.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Over the past few days, an Iranian dissident group based in Iraq has been complaining of a harsh crackdown by Iraqi authorities. It's called the People's Mujahideen or by its acronym, the MEK, and this group has lived in a cloistered camp inside Iraq for decades. It's been under U.S. military protection until the beginning of this year. This week, some of the Iranian dissidents were killed when Iraqi police tried to enter the camp. Our Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, managed to get into the camp today. He's the first Western journalist to do so. And Quil, what did you see there?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, it was a very strange scene. I was escorted into this outpost that the Iraqi police have established inside the camp, and the first thing I saw was a line of protesters. I couldn't get very close to them because the Iraqi army wouldn't let me. But here's what I heard.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign Language Spoken)

LAWRENCE: These people, men and women holding up pictures, were chanting, first off, we are hostages, and then they started chanting come here, come here. And it's one of the strangest moments I've ever had as a journalist because all of these protesters were begging me to come closer so they could tell their story, but I couldn't move the Iraqi army wouldn't let me.

BRAND: Quil, they're chanting, we are hostages. Tell us more about this group. What are they doing there?

LAWRENCE: This group has a long history. They fought against the shah back in the '70s and then left Iran once the Islamic Republic took over. They were taken in in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, but they had to do some very dirty work for him in return. They fought against their own countrymen in Iran as well as putting down some internal resistance inside Iraq. So there's very little love for these people in Iran and their native Iran and there's very little love for them here in Iraq. They've helped the United States with information about Iran's nuclear program, but the United States considers them a terrorist organization.

BRAND: So, it sounds like things are getting pretty tense. What's been going over the past few days?

SHUSTER: Well, a couple of days ago we first got word that there was this crackdown. The Iraqi government said they were just trying to establish this police outpost in the middle of the camp because, after all, this is Iraqi territory and they said no group has a right to claim a small pocket of it as their own territory. But we saw a lot of video coming out over the Web - and this group does have satellite communications - of Iraqi police, using American Humvees and equipment, apparently beating up unarmed protesters who were trying to prevent them from coming into the camp. What I saw today seemed to go along with those - with those stories. I saw a lot of broken glass, broken buses. I saw a lot of people wrapped up with bandages on their heads and their hands. And I saw a lot of Iraqi riot police carrying - some of them carrying batons, but some of them just carrying sticks or metal bars. It was very tense inside there.

BRAND: Has there been an American reaction to all of this?

SHUSTER: Well, first off, the Americans were clearly taken by a surprise. They didn't expect this to happen. They certainly didn't expect it to happen while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was visiting Iraq. But they haven't been making very strong comments. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she would hope for restraints on both sides. But I did see a scene today which was quite shocking. There have been American advisors outside this camp and I saw one captain he - when I spoke with him - said he'd to get me inside the camp and then when the Iraqi army said they wouldn't let me in, this captain actually exploded. He started yelling at the Iraqis that they were letting Iraqi reporters in, why wouldn't they let, what he said was, our reporters in. And I believe that he was very angry at what he'd been seeing over the last couple of days happening in this camp against these disarmed people.

BRAND: NPR's Quil Lawrence in Baghdad, thank you.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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