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October 6, 2021 11:46 am
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An Iraqi Perspective on Israel

avatar by Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Opinion

Iraqi demonstrators burn an Israeli flag during a protest to express solidarity with the Palestinian people amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Baghdad, Iraq May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily.

Growing up in Iraq, my curriculum in Baghdad’s elementary school included a “nationalism class” and required that we read a text by the Governor of Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s maternal uncle, Khairallah Tulfah.  It said that three things should not have been created: “Persians, Jews and flies.”

Most Iraqis are Shiites, who traditionally view Palestine as a Sunni issue. Because of animosity toward the Sunnis, Shiites rarely sympathize with the “Palestinian cause.” In fact, the holiest Islamic spots in Jerusalem, Masgid Omar and the Dome of the Rock, were both constructed by people that Sunnis revere and Shiites hate.

But last month, in the predominantly Kurdish city of Erbil in the north, 312 Iraqis — both Shiite and Sunni — participated in a conference that called for peace with Israel. Some drove to Erbil from the province of Babel, approximately 250 miles to the south.

One of the most prominent voices, Sunni tribal chief Wissam Al-Hardan, wrote that the conference “issued a public demand for Iraq to enter into relations with Israel and its people through Abraham Accords.”

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Al-Hardan described participants as “an assembly of Sunnis and Shiites, featuring members of the (Sunni) Sons of Iraq Awakening movement,” in addition to “intellectuals, tribal elders, and youth activists of the 2019-21 protest movement.”

The Head of Research at the Education Ministry, Sahar al-Taii, said “we can live under repression or die with courage,” adding that “we will push for peace with Israel until the leaders act.”

As al-Taii predicted, it did not take long before repression came knocking. Based on bogus charges, a Baghdad court issued arrest warrants for both Hardan and Taii, and added one for a former legislator, Mithal Al-Alusi, who had called for peace with Israel in the past and had even visited the Jewish state. For doing so, Alusi’s two sons were killed by a bomb.

Even though Alusi was in Germany for medical treatment, his name was shoved into the mix, not to truly go after him, but to remind Iraqis of the fate that awaits those who call for normalization with Israel.

Facing government harassment and threats from pro-Iran militias, most participants in the Erbil conference recanted. Al-Hardan was seen in a video claiming that he was duped and did not know what he was doing, even though his speech and op-ed were clear. Under duress, Hardan reversed himself, an act reminiscent of the days when Iraqis used to recant on TV, during the days of Saddam Hussein, and still lost their lives.

In a statement, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi described the “concept of normalization” with Israel as “unconstitutional, illegal and politically unacceptable in the Iraqi state.”

Notwithstanding that the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government exports oil to Israel, Kadhimi’s statement showed how most Iraqis have yet to understand how a modern state works. That a prime minister thinks that any constitution deals with a policy of normalization with Israel, is a problem. It is also a problem that Kadhimi equates politically unacceptable with illegal. Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussain has long been gone, but tyranny has remained.

Iraqi tyranny is driven by many factors. Like many Arabs, most Iraqis have yet to understand what liberty and freedom mean. That many Arabs, including Iraqis, get offended over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and think that they can censor such works, is proof that these Arabs have a long way to go to fully grasp what freedom of expression means.

Another driver of tyranny in Iraq is the Iranian regime, which sows discord in Iraq, and uses the “Palestine cause” as a battle cry to rally the Muslim world behind it. Iraq, too, is supposed to endorse Iranian slogans, such as “O Jerusalem, we are coming.”

During his campaign, President Joe Biden promised to support and expand the Abraham Accords.

Iraq is a predominantly Arab country, where popular opinion is ripe for peace and normalization with Israel. Non-Arabs, such as most Kurds, who make up one quarter of the population, have been friends with Israel for decades. If given a chance without fear of repression, anti-Iran Shiites and many Sunnis can join the Kurds. The real number of Iraqis who call for peace with Israel will then be significant.

But until Iraqis can enjoy freedom of expression, many of them — even the most liberal — will run for the exits every time the word Israel is mentioned. Iraqis want peace with Israel, but are not willing to sacrifice their lives for it.

President Biden should push for such peace between Iraq and Israel, while keeping in mind that whatever opposition Iraqis might express would be mostly under duress, and often at gunpoint, with Iranian operatives and their Iraqi militias threatening to pull the trigger any minute.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He Tweets @hahussain

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