Robert McCartney: A Hunger Strike to Remind U.S. of a Promise to Iranian Exiles

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By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 30, 2009

On a sunny patch of Pennsylvania Avenue a half-block from the White House, middle-aged men and women recline on beach lounge chairs under four canopies festooned with colorful flags. They haven't eaten solid food in a month. Before them stands a row of large photographs of 11 men, each draped with a wreath of red flowers. A soft-spoken woman carrying a light-blue umbrella hands out leaflets.

Sound familiar? Ho-hum? Demonstrations like this are so common in Washington that we rarely honor them with more than a glance. A drive down Embassy Row typically passes protesters angry over some event deemed worthy of perhaps two paragraphs in the Foreign pages last week.

Our blasé attitude is understandable, but we miss an opportunity when we ignore these scenes. They offer windows into rich, dramatic human experiences and historic developments overseas.

Moreover, it often turns out that these demonstrators are our neighbors, anxious about relatives or political issues in their native countries. Our region has attracted waves of immigrants from turbulent parts of the world, including the Vietnamese in the 1970s and Central Americans in 1980s.

The beach chair protest provides an especially interesting tale, including a troubling message about America's actions abroad. The demonstrators are ethnic Iranians, most of them U.S. citizens. They are pressing the Obama administration to intervene to protect about 3,400 Iranian exiles in Camp Ashraf outside Baghdad, which was stormed by Iraqi security forces July 28. The 11 men in the photographs were killed (plus one other), and hundreds of the camp's unarmed residents were injured. U.S. military forces stationed nearby, who once pledged solemnly to safeguard the camp's residents, stayed out of it.

"This is going to bring attention that people are getting beaten and killed in a place where you [the U.S. government] promised to protect them," said Zahra Rashidi, 51, of Chantilly.

She and husband Parham Malihi, 48, have consumed only Gatorade, water and tea in the hunger strike, which reached its 32nd day Saturday. Malihi said he feels weak sometimes but has a history of suffering for his politics. He's missing a toe and has scars on his face after being tortured during five years in prison in Iran in the 1980s.

"All of this is the price we pay for our freedom," he said. "We have pain but are proud of it."

The background of the controversy is convoluted, even by Middle Eastern standards. The exiles in Ashraf are the remnants of an Iranian opposition group, the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, which has long been based in Iraq.

The Iraqi government, which is increasingly close to Iran, wants to shut down the camp and evict its residents, as Tehran has been demanding. The United States is concerned but says Ashraf is now an internal Iraqi matter since the Baghdad government has assumed full sovereignty of the country.

The embarrassment for Washington is that it made a show earlier in the decade of assuring Ashraf's residents that they would be safe in exchange for their formal agreement to disarm and repudiate violence. The United States did so even though it has listed the MEK as a terrorist organization since 1997, mostly because of attacks that the group staged decades ago. America warmed to the MEK in part because the group provided valuable help monitoring Iran's nuclear program. In 2004, a U.S. Army general issued each Ashraf resident a written declaration with congratulations "on their recognition as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention."

The collapse of those assurances is a particular source of anger for demonstrators here. They hand out photocopies of "Protected Persons" identity cards carried by men killed at Ashraf last month. They say: "Should an incident occur, it is requested that you contact the [U.S.] 89th Military Police Brigade at the following phone numbers."


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