News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqHunger strikers press for Iraq’s release of Iranian exiles

Hunger strikers press for Iraq’s release of Iranian exiles


ImageNew York Times: Wednesday was the 50th day of their hunger strike, but Hamid Goudarzi, 26, and his fellow Iranian-immigrant protesters here swore they would never give up. The New York Times


ImageWASHINGTON — Wednesday was the 50th day of their hunger strike, but Hamid Goudarzi, 26, and his fellow Iranian-immigrant protesters here swore they would never give up.

“I’m getting weaker every day,” said Mr. Goudarzi, who gave up his job in San Antonio to join the protest. “But I’m here to the end.”

He is among two dozen hunger strikers encamped a stone’s throw from the White House to protest the deaths in Iraq of at least six members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, an exile group based in Iraq and committed to the overthrow of the Islamic revolutionary government in Tehran. Similar sympathy strikes are under way in Ottawa, London, Berlin, Stockholm and The Hague.

In addition to those killed, hundreds of other members of the exile group were wounded when Iraqi forces, newly empowered by the pullback of American combat troops, tried to forcibly take over their camp, Ashraf, north of Baghdad, at the end of July. The group fears mistreatment and expulsion at the hands of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, which has many ties to Iran.

The protesters are calling for the resumption of American protection of the camp until a United Nations presence can be arranged and for the release of 36 members who have been detained since the clash at Camp Ashraf, which is home to about 3,400 people.

A local Iraqi court has ordered the detainees’ release, but the government has appealed.

So far, the pleas from the protesters in Washington have elicited little reaction from the White House. But then the People’s Mujahedeen, also known as the M.E.K. and Mujahedeen Khalq, has a complicated history and still-disputed connections to enemies of the United States.

It remains on the State Department list of foreign terrorist groups (though Britain and the European Union have dropped that designation); it was linked to the assassinations of senior Iranian figures; it has been called “far left” and “cultlike” by analysts; and at one time it had friendly relations with Saddam Hussein, who provided space for its camp when the exiles — enemies of his enemy — needed a home.

The group’s defenders say its thinking has evolved as it has sought wider acceptance. It renounced violent tactics in 2001. In 2003, at the United States’ urging, it proclaimed neutrality in the Iraq war and turned over its weapons to American troops. Its members were declared by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2004 to be “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and now it is pressing to be dropped from the United States terrorist list.

“Times have changed; we’ve grown up,” said Ali Safavi, a spokesman.

Analysts say the Obama administration is torn. The group’s fierce opposition to the Tehran government and its help in providing intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program have made it useful to those in the administration seeking to contain that threat, but awkward for those seeking dialogue and reconciliation with Iran.

“This is not a black-and-white situation,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“There’ve long been people in the U.S. government who thought the M.E.K. was useful as a way to put pressure on the Iranian government,” said Mr. Alterman, a former senior policy planner at the State Department. “And there are people who’ve said these are not the kinds of people we should be hanging out with.”

Asked about the group this week, a White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, responded cautiously.

“The U.S. government continues to urge the government of Iraq to honor its public commitments to treat the M.E.K. humanely and in accordance with Iraqi and international law,” he said. “We are working with international organizations to help address the difficult situation of this group in Iraq. We empathize with and respect the concerns that many have expressed for their friends and loved ones in Iraq.”

Despite the administration’s stance, the group has garnered support from some of the most staunch conservatives in Congress, and some liberals.

The Iranians, said one of the conservatives, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, were “an imperfect group.” But, he added in a phone interview, “My belief is that we should be helping anybody who’s dedicated to bringing down the mullah regime in Iran.”

Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, said, “The United States has a moral and legal obligation to protect these Iranian political dissidents and Camp Ashraf.”

Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, has expressed particular concern about the welfare of the estimated 1,000 women at Camp Ashraf.

But many American officials remain deeply skeptical of the group, including the claims that the 36 detainees in Iraq are on their own serious hunger strike.

The protesters in Washington say they are limiting themselves to tea, water, sugar and Gatorade. Dr. Gary Morsch, 58, an Army Reserve doctor who served at Camp Ashraf in 2004 — and expresses sympathy for the Iranians’ cause — said that situation was precarious. A half-dozen have required hospital treatment.

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