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Peace Activists May Be Forced to Flee Iraq
Iraqis participating in the conference calling for peace and normalization with Israel organised by the US think tank Center for Peace Communications in Irbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, listen to a speech by senior Iraqi Culture Ministry official Sahar al-Tai on September 24, 2021. (Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images))

Peace Activists May Be Forced to Flee Iraq

Effort underway to evacuate some proponents of normalization between Iraq and Israel following Irbil conference

Internal backlash to an Iraqi conference late last month calling for normalization with Israel came fast and furious. Now, an effort is underway to evacuate participants who are in danger of arrest, or worse.

Iraq’s judiciary issued arrest warrants against three figures – Wisam al-Hardan, the leader of the Sons of Iraq Awakening movement; Sahar al-Tai, an employee in Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities; and former parliament member Mithal al-Alusi – for charges related to promoting normalization with Israel, as a result of the Peace and Reclamation conference held in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, on September 24.

The Supreme Judiciary Council said that similar legal proceedings will be initiated against other participants in the conference as soon as they are identified.

Under Iraqi law, it’s illegal to promote “Zionist principles.”

More than 300 Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, including tribal leaders, called for a normalization of ties with Israel at the conference in autonomous Kurdistan. The event, organized by the New York-based think tank, the Center for Peace Communications, was the first such initiative of its kind in Iraq, which fought in three wars against Israel and where Iran holds a large sway.

“Our organization is constantly building relationships with civil peacemakers across the Arab world. We have emissaries in most countries, and utilize various techniques to engage people through social media, then develop that engagement into ground-level action. We have spent years connecting with networks of Iraqis who want peace with Israel. We’ve been working on this conference for a long time, but the instant planning was over the last few months,” Joseph Braude, president of the Center for Peace Communications, told The Media Line, addressing how his group’s event seemingly came out of nowhere. The CPC advocates for normalizing relations between Israel and Arab countries, alongside working to establish ties between civil society organizations.

Powerful groups backed by Iran condemned the Irbil meeting, calling for those involved to be prosecuted, and a number of death threats have been issued by Shiite militias. The conference appears to have mobilized hard-line, anti-Israel Islamist elements in Iraq.

“The Zionist killing entity will not have a place in the Iraq of prophets, saints, martyrs and righteous people,” Fatah, a political bloc in the Iraqi parliament representing Tehran-backed Shiite militias and parties, said in a statement. Unlike other Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel, Iraq’s power structure is decentralized, and under significant influence from Iran.

We have been doing all that we can to protect these people. There is a lot of noise, pressure and threats, and some have lost their jobs. Iraqi TV and newspapers cover the matter every day. There are even billboards on the streets with images of people who spoke at our conference.

A week and a half after the conference, no arrests have been made and there has been no reported violence against any of the conference’s participants. But a source affiliated with the event says a number of those participants have requested assistance with being evacuated from Iraq, and an effort is underway to secure their safe passage. The source refused to divulge how many participants have requested this type of help, deeming it a security matter.

Al-Hardan’s name appeared on a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, calling for Iraq to establish full relations with Israel. He was among the most prominent speakers at the Irbil event. Al-Hardan later claimed he hadn’t read his speech in advance and was surprised to find it contained calls for normalization, even though he would go on to give an interview to Kurdish TV backing that very call. The CPC insists it worked with al-Hardan on his speech and obtained his sign-off on the op-ed, and that al-Hardan, frightened at the backlash, informed Braude that he would be recanting his statements and connection to the event. After the conference, al-Hardan lost his job as head of the Sons of Iraq Awakening Council, and his family received death threats. Local journalists said that al-Tai and al-Hardan remain in Irbil, where Kurdish authorities have so far not arrested them. Al-Tai was sacked from her position as a senior researcher at the Culture Ministry.

“We have been doing all that we can to protect these people. There is a lot of noise, pressure and threats, and some have lost their jobs. Iraqi TV and newspapers cover the matter every day. There are even billboards on the streets with images of people who spoke at our conference. Those opposed to peace feel they must destroy these people because they represent pent-up demand for peace in Iraq and will likely embolden others,” said Braude.

“These participants broke no law. This event amounted to a conversation about the possibility of peace. Iraq’s anti-normalization laws are Saddam-era laws. Some Iraqi leadership figures who resisted Baathist laws all their lives now want to use them to oppress the conference participants,” said Braude, referring to the Baath party of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The source connected to the event said that multiple governments are being contacted to see what can be done to protect those in danger. The source said that part of the strategy to protect the participants revolves around the fact that they are predominantly tribesmen, who reside in areas where the tribes are armed and where Iraqi militias, which largely act with impunity, don’t enter. The source said those militias would have to think very carefully if they wish to escalate the situation into a firefight, while acknowledging that some of the participants are more vulnerable in urban areas. Kurdish authorities have also previously offered protection to Iraqi politicians who defied the central government.

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government publicly backed the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in 2017, ahead of a Kurdish referendum on independence which passed overwhelmingly. Israel was the only country in the world to explicitly back the prospect of independent Kurdistan, whose population is spread across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s.

While Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid lauded the conference, no government, including Israel, has publicly offered assistance to those Iraqis now in danger.

The US government, an Iraqi ally and large humanitarian and defense benefactor, issued a tepid response when asked about its position.

“The United States government was not involved with this conference. We learned about it after it occurred. I’d refer you to the organizers for additional information,” a State Department spokesperson told The Media Line.

“As a general matter, the United States supports freedom of expression. Our view is that individuals should be able to freely express their view without fear of retribution. The Biden administration is of course supportive of efforts to deepen ties between Israel and countries in the region and elsewhere,” the spokesperson said.

The State Department did not respond to a follow-up question as to whether it is offering or planning to offer any assistance – diplomatic, logistical or otherwise – to conference participants in need of protection.

The recent events in Irbil were cited by US Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat and chair of the subcommittee of the US House Foreign Relations Committee that has purview over the Middle East. On Thursday, during a committee vote to advance the Israel Relations Normalization Act, Deutch said: “This bill is critical to breaking stereotypes that have long existed, particularly through the provision requiring reporting on the criminalization of civil society contacts between Israelis and certain Arab citizens. Look at what’s happening in Iraq, in Irbil, where activists championing normalization with Israel are now being arrested and threatened.”

The Anti-Defamation League sent a letter last week to US President Joe Biden, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and Iraqi President Barham Salih, urging them to “support the safety and fundamental rights of the courageous Iraqi participants in (the) summit on tolerance toward Jews and peace with Israel.”

Some critics of the conference accused Israel of direct involvement, though Braude insists that the CPC’s work is not coordinated with the Israeli government. One of the participants in the conference, delivering remarks via Zoom, was Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz, a well-known journalist and commentator who, along with her family that managed to make it out alive, fled Iraq in the early 1970s. She is now a senior consultant for Arabic digital media at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and helped to launch the ministry’s social media pages directed specifically toward the Iraqi public, which the ministry says are popular.

“Linda didn’t participate as a representative of the Israeli government. There is a protocol that she – similar to a diplomat who wants to participate in a conference or event – follows, in order to alert the ministry and gain clearance,” said the source.

Iraqis’ yearning for peace with Israel runs much deeper than the politics of the moment. Jewish history in Iraq is a legacy of excellence, development and partnership which Iraqis aspire somehow to revive. They know that means connecting with the country where most Iraqi Jews and their offspring live.

Braude, meanwhile, is insistent that the calls for normalization between Israel and Iraq are more complex than the nuances of the current political environment in the Middle East.

“Iraqis’ yearning for peace with Israel runs much deeper than the politics of the moment. Jewish history in Iraq is a legacy of excellence, development and partnership which Iraqis aspire somehow to revive. They know that means connecting with the country where most Iraqi Jews and their offspring live. My family fled with most of the community in the airlifts of the early 1950s, after a continuous history in Iraq dating back 2,600 years. Baghdad today is a city of Jewish ghosts,” said Braude, who studied Persian as a graduate student at the University of Tehran and whose most recent book, “Reclamation: A Cultural Policy for Arab-Israeli Partnership,” was published in 2019.

The vast majority of Iraqi Jews left the country in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, a series of airlifts to Israel in 1950-1951, following a change in Iraqi law that allowed for their departure after years of persecution and the infamous Farhud pogrom.

“We intend to build on this. The people who asked us to help in Iraq are deeply committed to the cause of peace with Israel and the people of Israel. We want to keep pressing on,” said Braude.

 

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