Hunger Strike Outside White House Gates

John Gizzi

By John Gizzi

“When will the Iraqi security forces leave Camp Ashraf? When will the United States keep their promise to protect the Iranian people who are being killed there?”

Those questions were voiced to me outside the White House yesterday by Zahra Amanpour of Jersey City, N.J. Zahra is one of fifty-or-so Iranian-American demonstrators who came from across the country and dared the August heat of Washington to show outrage … over the Obama Administration’s tolerance of what they consider “a humanitarian catastrophe:” the assault by the Iraqi security forces on the 3,400 Iranians refugees of Camp Ashraf in northern Iraq.

Zahra spoke to me from the heart. Her aunt is one of the exiles in Ashraf, who lives in daily terror one month after the assault by Iraq that took eleven lives. Zahra’s step-father is one of the three dozen Iranians who are conducting a hunger strike to draw the attention of the Obama Administration to the plight of Ashraf.

Yesterday (August 25) was Day 28 of the hunger strike, in which participants have gone without solid food and had only water and Gatorade.

Here’s what makes the situation both unusual and alarming. The Ashraf refugees are members of the People’s Mujahdeen Organization of Iran (PMOI), opponents of the Khameni-Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran. Founded in 1965 to oppose the regime of the Shad of Iran, the PMOI has also opposed the hard-line fundamentalist regime that has been in power since 1979. Underscoring the stance of the PMOI, posters blaring the legend “Down with Khamenei!” dotted the protest camp outside the White House.

The plight of the Ashraf people is, many would argue, a responsibility of the U.S. to solve. During the Iraq invasion in 2003, American forces bombed the camp and forcibly disarmed the people there.

In 2004, a U.S. general declared the Ashraf inmates “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions. (The PMOI had been declared a terrorist group by the United States at the behest of the Tehran regime. After being disarmed and renouncing terrorism, the PMOI people in Ashraf became, in effect, wards of the US.)

Responsibility for the safety of the Ashraf population was taken over by the Iraq government last year. Though the US does not have a legal obligation to protect them, a moral obligation certainly exists.

The tormentors of the Ashraf refugees are the official security forces of the U.S. — backed government in Iraq. In February, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni welcomed Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Tehran and urged (“commanded,” one of the Iranian protestors insisted to me) the Iraqi head of state to expel the PMOI from his country. As the French news service AFP quoted Khameni as saying to Talibani: “We await the implementation of our agreement regarding the expulsion of the hypocrites [the term with which the Islamic Republic always refers to PMOI].” (AFP, February 29, 2009).

On July 28-29 of this year, the Iraqi security forces hit Camp Ashraf hard. Eleven of the Iranian exiles were killed, more than 500 were wounded and 36 were taken hostage. A video of the attack is shown repeatedly at the camp of the protestors in Washington. It lists the names of the fallen and shows grisly scenes of what caused their deaths — attacks with machetes, blows to the heads with clubs, and gunfire, all done at the hands of uniformed assailants.

The Ashraf raid was hailed in Tehran as “admirable.” It also came in spite of assurances by the Bagdad government that it would protect the Iranian refugees. Citing a quote last fall from Gen. David Petraeus that the U.S. had been assured by the Iraqi government that the Ashraf exiles would continue to be protected after American forces had been withdrawn, the New York Times concluded August 2 that the “bloody melee between Iraqi police officers and the residents of the camp has not only raised fresh doubts in Washington about the worth of these assurances, but has also exposed just how little leverage American officials now have in a country they largely controlled for six years.”

Possible Solutions: Harold Koh, Call Your Office

“And this was all done as U.S. servicemen looked on and took no action,” hunger striker Massoud Abosali exclaimed to me, “Iraq has broken its promise to the United States to protect residents of Ashraf under Iraqi law. This is the promise it made in 2003, when the [PMOI] voluntarily disarmed. And the U.S. must now resume the protection of Ashraf residents.”

Like just about all of the strikers I spoke to, Massoud Abosali cited Article 45 of the Fourth Geneva Convention as the grounds for “moral obligation” for American forces to protect the Ashraf exiles.

Washington attorney Steven Schneebaum, who represents the Ashraf exiles, stopped by the site of the hunger strike. Schneebaum is a strong advocate of an international solution to ensure the protection of the camp. He dubs the concept of United Nations oversight of Ashraf “a terrific solution,” but agrees that there might be problems getting the U.N. Security Council to agree on such oversight.

When Schneebaum noted that he has been trying to get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to move on the issue, I asked whether he had been in touch with Harold Koh, the State Department’s top legal advisor, on the subject of international oversight. Koh’s statements on international law and its cases of trumping sovereignty made him a controversial figure during the onetime Yale Law School dean’s confirmation hearings earlier this year.

“I’ve known Harold for thirty years,” beamed Schneebaum, noting his own involvement with such international legal groups as the Center for Justice and Accountablilty, “He would be ideal to talk to but I haven’t been able to get through to him so far.”

Whether it is Koh, Secretary Clinton, or another U.S. official, it is clear that the Ashraf situation will continue to grow and plague the Obama administration unless there is some response that provides for the safety of the people in Ashraf.

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