Mercury News: When Iraqi police raided a remote refugee camp in the desert last week, hundreds of Iranian-Americans in the Bay Area feared for the lives of loved ones in the camp.
San Jose Mercury News
When Iraqi police raided a remote refugee camp in the desert last week, hundreds of Iranian-Americans in the Bay Area feared for the lives of loved ones in the camp.
The 3,500 residents of Camp Ashraf are members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or People's Mujahedeen of Iran, a dissident group initially formed in the mid-'60s to help topple the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. After the 1979 revolution that deposed the shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned against the group, executing more than 100,000 of its members and supporters — and driving others into exile.
Many of those exiles landed in the Bay Area, which has an Iranian-American population of more than 200,000.
"We're afraid the people in the camp will be executed or sent back to Iran, where they would be imprisoned and tortured or killed," said Ensieh Yazdanpanah, 47, a supporter of the Mujahedeen who was resettled in San Jose in 1984 after she and her husband escaped to Pakistan when she was seven months pregnant with her first child.
One of the residents of Camp Ashraf is a 25-year-old woman, Asieh, who was raised in the Bay Area by Yazdanpanah and her husband, Parviz, 57. The woman came here as a little girl during the first Persian Gulf War after the Iraqis let some Iranian children out of the country for their safety.
Parviz Yazdanpanah also has a sister, Fersheteh, in the camp. Another sister, Parvaneh, was killed at age 25 by Iran's Revolutionary Guard in a border skirmish near the camp in 1988.
The Yazdanpanahs say that e-mails and phone calls have stopped since the July 28 raid. "We cannot get any information," Ensieh said.
Exactly how many people were killed or injured in the raid is unclear because journalists and human rights groups have not been allowed into the camp to sort out the conflicting claims of the Mujahedeen and the Iraqi government — which has close ties to the Iranian government.
The Mujahedeen says at least 13 camp residents have been killed and about 500 injured as the Iraqis fired weapons and water cannons and beat them with batons. The Iraqis say they entered the camp to establish a police station inside it, and tensions escalated into a violent clash when the dissidents resisted. The government says six were killed and that the number of wounded is unknown. About 30 police officers were injured in the raid, according to the Iraqis.
Police arrested 36 dissidents after the raid, and exiles say they fear they will be executed. One of those arrested, Jamshid Kargar, used to live in San Jose when he was a college student, Ensieh Yazdanpanah said.
For years Washington officials have wrestled with the question of what to do with the residents of Camp Ashraf. And last week's bloody melee raised fresh doubts about the worth of previous assurances from top Iraqi officials that the Iranian dissidents would continue to be protected after the Americans turned over responsibility for the camp to Iraqi forces in February.
Exile groups had warned the U.S. not to give up control of the camp, saying the action would invite violence against the dissidents. They had gone on hunger strikes and marched in front of the White House.
"We told them that this would happen," said Ensieh Yazdanpanah.
In exchange for their cooperation and protection by U.S. troops, the dissidents gave up all their weapons in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The Iranians in the camp had initially entered Iraq toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-1980s. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had given them refuge and used their armed camp as a buffer.
The People's Mujahedeen has been on the U.S. State Department terrorism list for decades because of terrorist activities against Iranian targets it carried out beginning in the 1970s. But members say they belong to a pro-democracy group fighting against the tyranny of the theocracy in their homeland.
Despite their "terrorist" label, the U.S. has tried its best to protect the dissidents, who have been feeding information to Americans for years on Iran's nuclear program.
Some officials of the Bush administration argued that taking the group off the terrorism list — an action taken by the European Union in January — would send a tough message to Iran. But Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, shot down the proposal, in part because the U.S. wanted to engage the regime in Tehran.
Dedicated to freedom
Iranian-Americans in San Jose say members of the People's Mujahedeen are "freedom fighters" who should be supported by the U.S., not labeled as terrorists, because they support a secular, democratic state.
"All we're looking for is freedom for all Iranians," said Parviz Yazdanpanah, who was imprisoned for four years under the shah.
At the time he and his wife were forced to flee, Yazdanpanah was a medical student. Since being resettled in the U.S., he has worked in doughnut shops and as a florist in San Jose and the East Bay. He and his wife now live in El Sobrante.
Their 27-year-old daughter, Somayeh, and 23-year-old son, Hamid, are also active in the pro-democracy movement. Somayeh has been on a hunger strike in Washington, D.C., aimed at calling attention to the camp.
"What's going on in Camp Ashraf is a continuation of what's going on in Iranian society," said Hamid Yazdanpanah, a University of California-Davis graduate who will soon be starting his third year at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific.
He called the recent protests that followed the Iranian presidential election, which many Iranians thought was rigged, "an unprecedented organic uprising for democratic change and freedom."
"I'm 100 percent convinced," he said, "that the majority of Iranians want a secular republic just like every other democratic nation."
The New York Times contributed to this report.