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Iranian exiles in Iraq vow to continue hunger strike

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iranian exiles in Iraq vowed on Saturday to continue a six-week-old hunger strike until 36 of them arrested during a riot in July are freed and Iraqi forces who took control of their camp leave.

A man from Camp Ashraf holds a sign that states their demands as they go on a hunger strike during a protest against Iraqi forces in Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad August 24, 2009. REUTERS/National Council of Resistance of Iran/Handout/Files

In late July, Iraqi forces took control of Camp Ashraf northwest of Baghdad, home to the Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI), for two decades under the protection of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The raid at the camp, an irritant for the Iraqi government which has close ties to Iran, sparked clashes in which at least seven exiles were killed. Residents say 13 died.

The camp had been protected by the U.S. military until its 3,500 residents were formally transferred to Iraqi jurisdiction last January under a bilateral security pact.

PMOI spokesman Shahriar Kia, speaking by phone from the camp, said the 36 exiles arrested on rioting charges after the clashes were expected to go on trial on Sunday. They were on hunger strike along with “hundreds” of other camp residents.

The PMOI is fighting the Shi’ite-led government’s plan to close Ashraf and send the exiles to Iran or a third country. Iran, Iraq and the United States consider the PMOI a terrorist organisation.

Iraqi officials have not said when it might evict them.

Camp resident Mahkrokh Ghaffari, 47, said she had been on hunger strike for 46 days, only drinking water. She had been given intravenous solution, she said.

Ghaffari’s medical situation could not be independently verified. A U.S. official in Baghdad said the 36 detainees were on a liquid diet.

“I’m not doing well. I’m in pain, I’ve lost some of my vision and my hearing is partly gone,” Ghaffari said. “I will continue until we get our demands. We’re not asking much.”

Human rights lawyers in Washington, where the PMOI has some support for its cause, have urged the U.S. military to retake control of the camp to prevent abuses by Iraqi forces.

“If they don’t listen to us, we will continue the strike until they do,” said Ghaffari. “If we want our rights, we have to pay a price for it, even if that price is to die.”

Iraq’s government spokesman was not immediately available.

In Congress on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill told the House Foreign Affairs Committee he was monitoring the status of camp dissidents and that he had assurances from Iraq that the 36 detainees would be treated humanely.

“We have made it very clear to the Iraqi government that we are interested in the well-being of these people, that they should not be forcibly repatriated to Iran,” Hill said.

U.S. officials stress the camp has been a sovereign matter since Iraq took control of its own security matters.

“People in Ashraf feel betrayed by the Americans,” Behzad Saffari, a camp resident, said by phone.

“We still think the Americans have power to influence the Iraqis. Ashraf was handed to Iraqis on the promise of treating us according to international law. They have not done that.”

U.S. embassy spokesman Philip Frayne reiterated that the United States had assurances from Iraq that Ashraf residents would not be mistreated or forcibly repatriated, but said: “We have no legal obligation, or right, to be their protecting power”.