Shiite Iraq militia claims it attacked Iran group

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BAGHDAD (AP) — A Shiite militia leader on Monday claimed responsibility for a rocket attack over the weekend that killed two members of an Iranian exile group near Baghdad. Saturday’s attack on the sprawling Camp Liberty also killed an Iraqi and wounded nine Iranians and seven Iraqis.

The dissident group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, is the militant wing of a Paris-based Iranian opposition movement that 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, and was removed from the U.S. terrorism list last year.

Cleric Wathiq al-Batat, who leads the Mukhtar Army, told The Associated Press that a total of 18 rockets were fired at the camp. He vowed that his group will continue to attack the Iranians until they leave Iraq.

“We will continue to hit the MEK people until they leave the country,” al-Batat said. “We are giving them a 10-day deadline to leave otherwise they will be attacked again,” he added.

Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim said security forces are investigating the attack. Asked about al-Batat’s statement, he said that any statement made about this issue will be included in the investigation. Camp spokesman Shahriar Kia accused the Iranian government of being behind the attack.

Al-Batat previously claimed responsibility for a Feb. 9 attack on the camp that killed seven people, and at the time threatened to carry out further strikes on the compound until the MEK leaves.

The Mukhtar Army emerged earlier this year when leaflets bearing its name were delivered to Sunni households in a religiously mixed Baghdad neighborhood, warning the Sunnis to leave or face grave consequences.

Al-Batat was a senior official in Iraq’s 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, and has been sending fighters to Syria that are fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops.

He claims the Hezbollah Brigades defected from his group. It is unclear what links, if any, he maintains with the Hezbollah Brigades, which operate independently from the better-known Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Also Monday, officials said three bomb attacks, including a blast in a roadside restaurant just outside the capital, killed 15 people. The latest surge of violence in Iraq has left nearly 2,000 dead since early April.

The bombing of the restaurant in Taji, on the highway linking Baghdad to several northern Sunni-majority cities, killed eight people including two women and a 12-year-old child, police said. Twenty-four others were wounded.

In the same town, a minibus bombing killed two commuters and wounded 11 others, the police added. Taji is a former insurgent stronghold located about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Iraqi capital.

Meanwhile in the western town of Fallujah, a suicide bomber set off his explosives-laden belt among a group of policemen, killing five and wounding 24, another officer said. The policemen were waiting for buses to travel to a polling station to vote in Iraq’s provincial elections.

Fallujah, part of Anbar province, is located 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad. Residents there and in another Sunni-majority province, Ninevah, will cast their ballots on Thursday after the election was delayed in those provinces because of security problems.

Three medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.

The attack came just after a particularly bloody day in Iraq, when at least 51 people were killed in a wave of bombings and shootings. Violence has spiked sharply in recent months, with death tolls rising to levels not seen since 2008. So far this month, more than 190 were killed.

In Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs. When talk turned to Syria, he warned against arming rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

“From the beginning, Iraq has stressed the necessity of finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis,” he said in a statement released after the meeting. “Arming would lead to the destruction of the country and shake the stability of the region, especially in neighboring countries,” he added.

The United States decided to arm some rebel groups last Friday. Gulf Arab countries have been supplying weapons since shortly after the conflict began in 2011, while Britain and France are currently considering arms deliveries to the rebels.

The civil war is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni Muslims against Shiites, and threatening the stability of Syria’s neighbors — including Iraq. Sunnis dominate the rebel ranks while the Assad regime is mostly made up of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.

The U.N. says at least 93,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, while millions have been displaced.

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Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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