WASHINGTON — Saeid Sajadi is an expatriate Iranian who leads a comfortable life as a physician in suburban Kansas City.
Iran is never far from his thoughts, however.
He left his native land when he was 20 — nearly a quarter of a century ago — to escape the religious repression. He earned a medical degree from the University of Kansas and now operates three cosmetic medicine clinics in Kansas and Missouri. He practices emergency medicine as well.
Sajadi also probably logs several hundred air miles each week to help a group of Iranian dissidents devoted to toppling the Iranian regime.
"He's a very hardworking, passionate and engaged person in this cause who sacrifices tremendously," said Dr. Gary Morsch, founder of Heart to Heart International, a Kansas-based global health-care group.
This week, Sajadi was in New York to protest the United Nations speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Last week, and the week before that, he was in Washington to lobby Congress on behalf of Iranian-American hunger strikers who've been encamped outside the White House for more than 50 days.
In June, he joined other dissidents at an anti-regime rally in Paris.
"It takes more sacrifice," Sajadi said. "You see what a brutal regime the Iranian regime is. That's why I have to do more."
His cause, and the reason for the hunger strike, has been the fate of about 3,400 Iranians — including his older brother, Majid — living at Camp Ashraf in Iraq, a former military base turned camp for dissidents north of Baghdad near the Iranian border. They are members of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, known as the MEK, a cult-like Marxist-Islamist group.
In July, eight camp residents were killed, others were injured and 36 were arrested when Iraqi troops moved in to set up a police station, according to Amnesty International.
American troops had protected the camp until January, when it became Iraq's responsibility. The residents were viewed as protected persons under the Geneva Convention. Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, recently told Congress that Iraq has pledged to treat the MEK "humanely."
However, many Iraqi leaders have close ties to the Iranian regime, which wants the camp shut down. Nor have they forgotten how Saddam Hussein supported the MEK, reportedly in his war against Iran in the 1980s and his bloody repression of Iraq's Kurds and Shiite Muslims.
Sajadi said the group was fighting against Iran, but "independent of Iraqi forces."
The story has drawn sympathy from Capitol Hill to Canterbury, where the archbishop called the July incident "a humanitarian and human rights issue of real magnitude and urgency."
Supporters want the Obama administration to temporarily resume overseeing the MEK's security, while working out an arrangement for protection by the United Nations.
"Given what happened, Iraq in no way can be trusted to protect these people," said Ali Safavi, a member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, MEK's political arm.
Sajadi fears that Iraq might deport everyone at Ashraf to Iran, which he said could "mean execution." He worries about Majid, five years his senior, who left Iran for the U.S. in 1979, two months before the revolution. He studied at Kansas State University but returned to the region in 1986 to join Iranian opposition fighters in Iraq and has been with them ever since.
The group relinquished its weapons around the time of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It claims kinship with the democracy movement in Iran and those demonstrating against the apparent June re-election of Ahmadinejad. But critics say MEK has little support in Iran because of its past and record of terrorism.
"This movement is seeking greater freedom and respect for human rights," said Trita Parsi, an Iran scholar and founder of the nonpartisan National Iranian American Council. "The Mujahedeen cult stands for none of these things."
Sajadi said freedom and human rights are the reasons why members of the MEK — and himself as well — left Iran in the first place.
"Back then anyone who hoped to go to the university and get a job, you had to go to Friday prayers, you had to support the war (with Iraq), you had to support the Revolutionary Guard," Sajadi said.
The MEK had been part of the Iranian revolution, which overthrew the Shah in 1979.
It subsequently split with the new ruling clerics, though, and waged a campaign of terror inside Iran. It's also been tied to the killings of American military personnel and civilians in the 1970s.
The State Department calls the MEK a foreign terrorist group, even though the European Union no longer does.
Some experts have said keeping the group on the list was merely a goodwill gesture.
"A little bit of a tool to embrace Iran" said Dell Dailey, a former State Department counterterrorism official.
MEK allies point to its efforts to give intelligence to the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran's nuclear program. It grabbed headlines this week with allegations that Iran has been operating two heretofore unknown sites for nuclear weapons research. Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.
MEK allies point to its efforts to give intelligence to the U.S. and the Atomic Energy Agency about Iran's nuclear program.
The group also triggers claims, however, that it's a cult because of its restrictive rules inside the camp, including separation of the sexes, a ban on sex and minimal contact with the outside world.
"Anytime you have a group of people willing to lay down their lives to a cause, often that appears very cultish," said Morsch, who, as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, served as the medical director for the troops guarding Ashraf in 2004. "They renounced marriage, their futures and have given up their freedom."
Sajadi said that just underscores the depth of their commitment and beliefs. The members include professionals, such as engineers and physicians, who've left behind families and settled lives in the West to work against the regime.
"That's how Ashraf and the resistance are for people," he said. "It is beyond even the family because of the bigger 'family.' That's how important it is."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2009