Iraqi forces stormed a camp of more than 3,000 members of an Iranian dissident group that until recently had been protected by the U.S. military, in the biggest unilateral operation since American forces withdrew from Iraq's cities a month ago.
Iran has long demanded that Iraq take action against the group, the Mujahedin e-Khalq, or MEK, but the U.S. had stood in its way.
The willingness to go ahead with the raid appears to point to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's balancing act between his two most important allies, as the U.S. gradually pulls out of the country and neighboring Iran seeks to expand its influence.
Iraqi forces seized control of the camp by force after the camp's leaders refused requests by Iraqi police to enter the camp peacefully to establish a police station there, according to the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and a spokesman for Prime Minister Maliki.
The raid was within Iraq's rights, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday, and the Iraqi government has assured it that no member of the group in Iraq will be forcibly transferred to a country where he or she fears persecution.
"This is really a matter for the government of Iraq to handle. This is completely within their purview. But we are closely monitoring it," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.
The MEK, whose name means People's Mujahedin of Iran, has been based in Iraq since the early 1980s, when Saddam Hussein gave members refuge along with formal military training and arms. The MEK staged attacks against Iranian officials, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was left partially paralyzed by an MEK attack.
It also targeted U.S. officials in Iran in the 1970s, and the group is designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
The MEK renounced violence in 2001 and enjoys some support among hawks in Washington because of its claims to be a pro-American, pro-democracy alternative to Iran's ruling clerics. The U.S. disarmed the group in 2003, and protected its Iraq base, known as Camp Ashraf, in part because of the group's opposition to Tehran.
Gen. Odierno said the Iraqis hadn't given the U.S. advance warning of the raid. Iraq's government had vowed to move against the group after the U.S. handed over control over the territory three months ago -- promising to deal humanely with the group.
Residents of Camp Ashraf said hundreds of Iraqi security forces tore down the camp's walls on Tuesday afternoon with bulldozers. The forces fired water cannon and tear gas and swung batons against camp residents who tried to block their entry, residents said. The operation against the sprawling desert compound 80 miles north of Baghdad and about 70 miles from Iran's border was continuing into the night, they said.
A U.S. military official said the Iraqis used primarily tear gas and smoke grenades, as opposed to live ammunition or other deadly weaponry.
"They promised to deal with the MEK in a humane fashion," Gen. Odierno told a small group of reporters at his office near Baghdad's airport. "That's what we've been watching for and so far they're abiding by that."
There were conflicting reports of casualties during the assault. The MEK said four people had been killed and about 300 men and women had been wounded, but Iraqi media reported just 10 injuries. The reports of violence couldn't be independently confirmed. The MEK has a history of making exaggerated claims to journalists -- though it earned some credibility for being the first to find out about Iran's controversial nuclear-fuel program in 2002.
The MEK was disarmed by the U.S. in 2003, and since then has focused on nonmilitary means of fighting the Iranian regime, such as creating and disseminating Internet propaganda.
The MEK says it is the leading Iranian opposition group, but it his little public support in the country. Supporters of current opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi reject the group.
The MEK lost much of its popular support inside Iran after it fought alongside Iraq's army against Iran in the 1980s. It has also alienated many Iraqis after it was accused of helping Mr. Hussein violently suppress rebellions by Iraq's Kurdish and Shiite minorities, charges the MEK has denied.
With such resentment in Iraq, the raid could win domestic favor for Mr. Maliki, who faces a national election early next year.
Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, has maintained close ties to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and spoken out against the prospect of an American military strike on Iran. At the same time, he has cracked down on Iranian-backed Shiite militias and repeatedly declared that Iran shouldn't interfere in Iraq's internal affairs.
Inside Camp Ashraf, MEK members, many of whom have been raised since childhood by MEK followers, dress in matching olive and khaki fatigues and live monk-like celibate lives.
Iraq has said it hopes to deport camp residents, but that is unlikely to happen soon. Many hold U.S., Canadian and European passports, but may resist repatriation. There is fear that MEK members will be in danger if they are returned to Iran.
For now, the Iraqi government appears to simply be establishing a presence inside the camp, according to a senior Western adviser to the Iraqi government. "There's nothing the government can do with them and no place to put them," the adviser said.