For years, Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill were marked by the often disruptive presence of the anti-war group Code Pink; now their presence at hearings has been replaced by an Iranian dissident group.
About 50 supporters of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) took over the first three rows of the audience at Tuesday morning's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Senate Hart Office Building. The hearing was to examine President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, and featured testimony by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Unlike the Code Pink representatives, who were famous for disrupting Senate hearings, the MEK supporters at the Hart building today sat politely in their bright yellow sweatshirts and ponchos, which had slogans printed on them calling for the State Department to take the MEK off of their list of foreign terrorist organizations -- a move that is supposedly under consideration.
We overheard one staffer at the hearing quip, "When your critics allege you are a cult, you probably shouldn't dress like one."
The MEK, whose ideology fuses Islam and Marxism, was formed in Iran in 1965. It allied itself with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and fought against the Shah and his Western backers during the Iranian Revolution. After falling out of favor with Khomeini, the group was given shelter in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, who used them to conduct brutal cross-border raids during the Iraq-Iran war.
After the fall of Saddam, the United States helped broker an agreement whereby 3,400 MEK members were confined to a complex in northeast Iraq called Camp Ashraf, protected by the U.S. military. The camp was handed over to the Iraqi government in 2009. In an interview this summer with The Cable, Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaida'ie said that the MEK was dangerous and "nothing more than a cult."
Since 2009, the MEK has conducted a multi-million advocacy and lobbying campaign in Washington, with the help of dozens of senior U.S. officials and lawmakers, many of whom have been paid for their involvement. The list includes Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former Sen. Evan Bayh, and many others.
In an August rally outside the State Department, Kennedy declared, "One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian, I am an Ashrafi.'"
Kennedy admitted he was paid $25,000 to emcee the rally.
Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) called on the administration to protect the MEK from Iraqi government violence in his opening statement at the hearing.
"The status of the residents at Camp Ashraf from the Iranian dissident group MEK remains unresolved," Levin said. "As the December 2011 deadline approaches, the administration needs to remain vigilant that the Government of Iraq lives up to its commitments to provide for the safety of the Camp Ashraf residents until a resolution of their status can be reached."
"We need to make it clear to the Government of Iraq that there cannot be a repeat of the deadly confrontation begun last April by Iraqi security forces against Camp Ashraf residents," Levin said.
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.