Why Is Iraq Afraid of Better Relations With Israel?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week more than 300 leaders of Iraqi civil society gathered in the Kurdish city of Erbil, in northern Iraq, to speak a forbidden truth: Iraq should have normal relations with Israel.
Among the attendees was Wisam al-Hardan, the leader of the Sunni movement known as the “Sons of Iraq,” which aligned with the U.S. military in Western Iraq against al Qaeda. These private citizens called on their government to follow the lead of countries such as Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, which are in the Abraham Accords, and begin negotiations with Israel for full diplomatic relations.
Given the many crises Iraq’s government now faces — from Covid-19 to the pernicious influence of Iranian-backed militias — one might think that Baghdad would be unconcerned with a few hundred Iraqis talking about the possibility of direct flights between Tel Aviv and Mosul. But the ghosts of Saddam Hussein’s old tyranny, and the influence of Iran, remain strong in Iraq.
The response from Iraq’s leaders was shameful. Some of the same militias responsible for attacks on U.S. positions in northern Iraq threatened violent retribution against the participants in the conference as well as the Kurdistan regional government that hosted it. The Iraqi press reported that a Baghdad court issued arrest warrants for al-Hardan and an official from Iraq’s ministry of culture who attended the conference. The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi tweeted that the conference — which called for peace between Israel and Iraq — was an attempt to stoke “sectarian hatred.”
Even Iraqi President Barham Salih, who is Kurdish and has met privately for years with American Jewish organizations in his visits to the U.S., denounced the gathering. He said the conference was “illegal,” invoking a questionable law that prohibits private Iraqi citizens from seeking to normalize relations with Israel.
And what about the response of the U.S. government? After all, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a Zoom event held on the same day as the conference that the U.S. would work to support and expand the Abraham Accords. But so far the U.S. has not offered a word of support for the private Iraqi citizens who are now facing legal and extra-legal threats for seeking to do just that.
The only public statement from the U.S. came from Colonel Wayne Marotto, the spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq. He tweeted that the U.S. “had no prior knowledge of the event, nor do we have any affiliation with its participants.” In other words, those Iraqis who want peace with Israel are on their own.
In the aftermath of the Erbil conference, one conclusion might be that most Iraqis are just not ready to make peace with Israel. Israel’s other peace deals have been negotiated with and agreed to by Arab governments, without real input from their populations.
But there is a more plausible conclusion: Israel’s enemies are so afraid of a free debate on the Jewish state that they feel compelled to coerce a false consensus on the matter. As Joseph Braude, an organizer of the conference, told me: “The response has been a massive effort to destroy these people and send a message to the rest of the population who share their views to never open their mouths.”
The U.S. should protect the Iraqis who attended the Erbil conference. This is not only because it is in America’s interest that Iraq have a normal relationship with Israel. It is also because Iraq cannot be considered a free or democratic nation if its militias and courts are used to silence its own citizens.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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