BAGHDAD – Twelve people were killed by bombings in northern and western Iraq on Thursday, including seven in a building used by a Sunni-backed political group in Diyala province, police said.
The violence is a reflection of the deep political and ethnic divisions that remain in Iraq despite the security gains over the past 18 months.
Diyala experienced violence earlier this week when Iraqi security forces and an Iranian opposition group living in a camp in the province engaged in two days of clashes that left seven people dead.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh confirmed Thursday that the seven were killed when Iraqi forces seized control of the Iranian group's camp, reversing two days of denials that anyone had been killed.
Police in western Iraq, meanwhile, said five people died and 15 were injured when a homicide bomber blew up his vehicle in Qaim, near the border with Syria. A police official said the bomber was targeting a police station, but concrete barriers prevented him from reaching it.
"There are many civilians under the rubble. Many houses were destroyed completely, and the police imposed a vehicle and motorcycle ban," he said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
Thursday's first blast hit Baqouba, the provincial seat of Diyala that lies northeast of Baghdad, killing at least seven and wounding 10 people, said Major Ghalib al-Karkhi, a spokesman for the Diyala police. Other police and hospital officials confirmed the toll.
The bomb was hidden inside a building used by the Reform and Development Movement, a Sunni-backed political group founded last year that won four seats in the last provincial council elections.
The bombing came amid heightened tensions in Camp Ashraf, where Iranian exiles belonging to the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran clashed with Iraqi police. The group said hundreds of exiles were wounded and at least seven killed. That claim was initially denied by the Iraqi government, but al-Dabbagh confirmed the death toll Thursday.
"We came to know ... that seven people from Ashraf Camp have been killed. We have around 30 people from our police, they have been injured, some of them are in critical situation," al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press.
The raid raised fears that Iraq's government is readying to deport the thousands of camp residents as a friendly gesture to close ally Iran, which considers the exiles part of a terrorist organization.
About 3,500 ex-Iranian fighters and relatives live in the camp, first set up in 1986 when they helped Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, American troops disarmed the fighters and confined them to the camp.
The Americans handed over responsibility for the camp to the Iraqis to comply with a security agreement this year, but said they would maintain a force nearby to ensure humane treatment of the Iranians. Tensions rose as the Iraqi government stepped up efforts to get the group to leave the country.
The Iraqis had kept a security cordon around the camp's perimeter but a day before the raid, they said they would assume complete control. The government promised to protect the people inside. A move to set up a police station inside the camp sparked riots by the exiles on Tuesday that police fought with water canon and batons. The clashes continued into Wednesday.
Al-Dabbagh denied excessive force was used and said an investigation was under way into how the seven Iranians died.
He said the Iraqis found the bodies of two men shot in the back when they entered the camp. He claimed they had the word "traitor" in Iran's Farsi language written on their bodies, suggesting they had been killed by members of the group.
Al-Dabbagh said the situation at Camp Ashraf was now stable and that the police station has been set up inside the camp. There was no word Thursday from camp residents that the tension had died down. Journalists have been refused entry to the camp, making it difficult to independently verify casualty numbers.
The raid has caused international concern. The exiles fear that if they are deported back to Iran, they may be prosecuted by the government for the group's collaboration with Saddam.
Iraq wants the exiles out of the country and wants to close the camp some 80 miles north of Baghdad.
Al-Dabbagh said the police needed to set up the outpost inside the camp to keep control "both inside and outside," stressing that the responsibility for the camp's security is Iraq's concern and is viewed as "part of government sovereignty."
"They live on Iraqi soil and not on a remote island, and it is the job of Iraqi government to have control on the security situation there," he added.
Al-Dabbagh said the government will change the name of Camp Ashraf to New Iraqi Camp to remove the Iranian reference. The camp was originally named for one of the founders of the People's Mujahedeen, Ashraf Rajavi.
"It is on Iraqi soil ... so the name should be an Iraqi one," he said.
U.S. and Iranian responses to the actions also have raised questions about how Iraq can balance its relationships with its two closest allies. The U.S. has repeatedly called for the Iraqi government not use force against the exiles, while Tehran has called on Iraq to evict the exiles.
The People's Mujahedeen is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., but in the past has given the Americans intelligence on Iran. The group has appealed to President Barack Obama to intervene on their behalf, citing a 2003 agreement with the Americans under which the camp's residents gave up their weapons to U.S. troops in exchange for protection.