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Shiite militant threatens Iranian exiles in Iraq

The Associated Press

By By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and ADAM SCHRECK

BAGHDAD (AP) — The head of a new Shiite militant group in Iraq on Tuesday threatened to carry out more attacks on a camp for Iranian exiles that was struck by dozens of rockets and mortar shells earlier this month.

Seven people were killed in the Feb. 9 attack on the camp near Baghdad airport that houses members of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, the militant wing of a Paris-based Iranian opposition group. Iraq's government, which maintains friendly ties with Tehran, considers the MEK a terrorist group and wants its members out of country.

Tuesday's comments from Wathiq al-Batat suggest he shares the government's goal, even if he disagrees with its handling of the exiles. In a phone interview with The Associated Press, al-Batat said his newly formed Mukhtar Army group was behind the attack and promised more attacks to come.

"It is time for the people of the MEK to leave Iraq. We have demanded that the government kick the group out of the country, but the Iraqi government did not respond positively to our demand," he said. "We will strike them again until they leave."

It was not possible to independently confirm al-Batat's claim that his group was behind the attacks, but Iraqi officials and MEK members say they are taking his threats seriously. No other groups have taken responsibility.

"Mukhtar Army" appeared on threatening leaflets delivered to Sunni households in a Baghdad neighborhood last week warning residents to leave or face grave consequences.

The MEK opposes Iran's clerical regime and has carried out assassinations and bombings in Iran. It fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq. It renounced violence in 2001. The Obama administration took it off the U.S. terrorism list last September.

The refugee camp is located on a former American military base known as Camp Liberty. It is meant to be a temporary way station while the United Nations works to relocate the exiles abroad.

MEK members reluctantly began moving to Camp Liberty last year. They previously lived in a compound known as Camp Ashraf in northeastern Iraq. It was twice raided by Iraqi security forces, leaving more than three dozen people dead.

Al-Batat was a senior official in the Hezbollah Brigades, which is believed to be funded and trained by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard. It was among the Shiite militias that targeted U.S. military bases months before troops pulled out in December 2011.

Earlier this month, he announced he was forming a new group known as the Mukhtar Army. He continues to use the Hezbollah name as well, suggesting he is trying to claim rightful leadership of that group. It is unclear what links, if any, he maintains with Iraq's Hezbollah.

Although Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades and the better-known Hezbollah in Lebanon are both backed by Iran, they appear to operate largely independently from one another.

Al-Batat is a wanted man. The Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant against him shortly after he announced the formation of the Mukhtar Army.

"The security forces are now even more determined to arrest him following these recent statements" about the camp attack, said Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the prime minister.

Al-Batat said Tuesday he is in Iraq but declined to say where.

The Iranian opposition group that oversees the MEK, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, sees al-Batat and his followers as an arm of Iran's Quds Force, which oversees external operations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

"In reality the operation against Camp Liberty was carried out by the Iranian regime with the cooperation of the government of Iraq," alleged Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the Paris-based opposition group. "Al-Batat is part of this terror machine."

Gobadi called for the MEK members to be returned to Camp Ashraf, where the refugees feel they would be more secure.

In Tuesday's interview, al-Batat described himself as a follower of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He said his group receives weapons and other support from Iran, but declined to provide details. He has previously said he is advised by Iran's Quds Force.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guard official dismissed suggestions it supports any armed group in Iraq, saying, "the claims are aimed at defaming the Guard. We do not see any reason to respond to such baseless claims." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The U.N. envoy to Iraq, Martin Kobler, urged Baghdad to thoroughly investigate the Camp Liberty attack and to share their findings with the UN. The Iraqi government is responsible for the safety of camp residents.

"We continue to remind them of their obligation and urge them to take all appropriate measures to protect residents and ensure their security," Kobler told the AP.

Iraq's Interior Ministry spokesman, Lt. Col. Saad Maan Ibrahim, said security measures have been intensified after the recent rocket attack on camp.

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Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed reporting.