Death threats for Iraqis calling for peace with Israel, as US abandons these peacemakers

October 01, 2021

Above: Tom Gross in Erbil in Iraq in 2019, close to where 300 Iraqi notables last week made a declaration calling on Iraq to join the Abraham Accords and establish diplomatic, cultural and economic relations with Israel.



[Notes by Tom Gross]

I attach several articles below about the recent call by over 300 Iraqi notables for Iraq to establish diplomatic, cultural and economic relations with Israel -- and about the depressing backlash they have suffered, including death threats, and the shocking lack of support given to them by Secretary of State Blinken and the Biden administration.

Among those attending the conference nine days ago in Erbil was longtime US peace negotiator Dennis Ross (who has worked for both Democrat and Republican administrations), and addressing the conference by video was Chemi Peres, son of the late Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres.

The conference was co-organized by Iraqi Muslims and by Joseph Braude, the Arabic-speaking US-based great-great grandson of the former chief rabbi of Baghdad, who like all of Iraq's sizeable millennia-old Jewish community had their property and assets seized, and their Iraqi citizenship revoked, and their documents stamped: "Forbidden to come back to Iraq," in the 1940s and 50s.


Partly as a result of Iranian and other intimidation, authorities in the Sunni Anbar province have issued arrest warrants for six of the key conference participants. Others were dismissed from their government jobs. Pictures of the six have been displayed on huge banners erected at checkpoints between Anbar and Baghdad with captions accusing them of "treason."

Among those against whom arrest warrants have been issued following the conference are Sunni tribal leader Wisam al-Hardan, Iraqi culture ministry official Sahar al-Ta'i (pictured below), and Iraqi parliamentarian Mithal al-Alousi, a longtime advocate of Israel normalization (whom I met when he visited Israel some years ago). I have also met and remain in touch with two of the other Iraqi participants, at another conference in Europe at the start of 2020.


The only official US reaction to all this has been a lackluster tweet from U.S. Army spokesperson Col. Wayne Marotto, saying that the army had been "made aware of announcements ? relating to the recent conference held in Erbil to discuss the normalization of ties with Israel. @Coalition had no prior knowledge of the event, nor do we have any affiliation with its participants."

As Jonathan Tobin writes in one of the pieces below: "In other words, the U.S. military made it clear that its allies who had taken a stand in favor of peace with Israel were on their own. Rather than standing with the advocates of normalization, America was doing its best to appear indifferent to their fate even as other Iraqis, egged on by Iran, were demanding their blood."



Above: Dr. Sahar al-Ta'i, Head of Research at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, addressing the peace conference in Erbil on September 24, 2021.

As you can see from the start of the video of her remarks here she also said that it was important for Iraqis to remember the victims of the Holocaust, as well as the victims of 9/11 and other atrocities.

Al-Ta'i has not been publicly heard from since her statements at the conference, and the Culture Ministry has disowned her.


Among related dispatches:

Miss Iraq, defying death threats, visits and praises Israel (June 14, 2018)

Video of Miss Iraq in Israel here:



1. Iraq Should Join the Abraham Accords (By Wisam Al-Hardan, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 25, 2021)
2. Why Is Iraq Afraid of Better Relations With Israel? (By Eli Lake, Bloomberg, Sept. 29, 2021)
3. A pro-Israel summit in Erbil breaks new ground (By Dennis Ross, Foreign Policy magazine, Sept. 30, 2021)
4. A cautionary tale about Arab-Israeli normalization (By Jonathan Tobin, JNS, Sept. 30, 2021)
5. Talk of Iraq Recognizing Israel Prompts Threats of Arrest or Death (By Jane Arraf, New York Times, Sept. 30, 2021)
6. Iraq, Kurdistan reject conference on normalizing ties with Israel (, Sept. 25, 2021)



Iraq Should Join the Abraham Accords
Full relations with Israel would help atone for the infamous act of driving out our Jewish population.
By Wisam Al-Hardan
Erbil, Iraq
Wall Street Journal
Sept. 25, 2021

More than 300 of my fellow Iraqis from Baghdad, Mosul, Al-Anbar, Babel, Salahuddin and Diyala joined me Friday in this northern city, where we issued a public demand for Iraq to enter into relations with Israel and its people through the Abraham Accords.

We are an assembly of Sunnis and Shiites, featuring members of the (Sunni) Sons of Iraq Awakening movement, which I lead, in addition to intellectuals, tribal elders, and youth activists of the 2019-21 protest movement. Some of us have faced down ISIS and al Qaeda on the battlefield. Through blood and tears we have long demonstrated that we oppose all extremists, whether Sunni jihadists or Iran-backed Shiite militias. We have also demonstrated our patriotism: We sacrificed lives for the sake of a unified Iraq, aspiring to realize a federal system of government as stipulated in our nation's constitution.

Now, in striving to rebuild our country, we commit ourselves to an awakening of peace. Our guiding light is the memory of a more honorable past: a young, modern state with a glorious ancient tradition; a country that, at its finer moments, witnessed a spirit of partnership across ethnic and sectarian lines. Iraq's subsequent deterioration was marked by the dissipation of tolerance -- a casualty of generations of tyranny and fear, imposed first by rulers, then by external actors, as a tool to divide and conquer.

The most infamous act in this tragedy was the mass exodus and dispossession of the majority of our Iraqi Jewish population, a community with 2,600 years of history, in the mid-20th century. Through their forced migration, Iraq effectively cut one of its own principal veins. Yet we draw hope from the knowledge that most Iraqi Jews managed to rebuild their lives, passing their traditions to their children and grandchildren in Israel.

In striving to rebuild Iraq, we must reconnect with the whole of our diaspora, including these Jews. We reject the hypocrisy in some quarters of Iraq that speaks kindly of Iraqi Jews while denigrating their Israeli citizenship and the Jewish state, which granted them asylum.

Some of the countries surrounding Iraq are withering in war, while others are blooming in peace. We reject the rule by warlords that has devastated Libya and Yemen. We refuse to allow the tyranny and atrocities of Syria to dissuade us. We decry the cascading tragedies of Lebanon, where a militia that began as a state within a state has swallowed the country whole.

At the same time, we see a hopeful trend in the region: an expanding community of peace, economic development and brotherhood that is the framework of the Abraham Accords -- initiated by the United Arab Emirates with its Israeli partners, and joined by our brethren from Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

We have a choice: tyranny and chaos, or legality, decency, peace and progress. The answer is clear. Just as we demand that Iraq achieve federalism domestically, we demand that Iraq join the Abraham Accords internationally. We call for full diplomatic relations with Israel and a new policy of mutual development and prosperity.

We have taken the first step of meeting publicly in Erbil in consort with an American organization, the Center for Peace Communications. Next we will seek face-to-face talks with Israelis. No power, foreign or domestic, has the right to prevent us from moving forward. Iraq's anti-normalization laws, which criminalize civil engagement between Arabs and Israelis, are morally repugnant.

We extend a hand of friendship to our brothers and sisters in humanity across the region and around the world, and we ask for God's help as we move forward toward a brighter future.



Why Is Iraq Afraid of Better Relations With Israel?
The regime has been hostile to anyone who attended a conference last week promoting closer ties between the two nations.
By Eli Lake
September 29, 2021

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.



A pro-Israel summit in Erbil breaks new ground
By Dennis Ross
Foreign Policy
September 30, 2021

At great personal risk, Iraqi civil society leaders gathered to demand entry into the Abraham Accords, and their efforts need more American support.


On Sept. 24, a remarkable event took place in Iraq. In the northern city of Erbil, 312 Iraqis gathered -- predominantly Sunnis but also Shiites, from cities and towns across the country -- to issue a demand for their country to enter into relations with Israel and its people via the Abraham Accords, and they did this while risking the wrath of Iran and its military proxies.

The participants were religious leaders, youth protesters, and college professors. One of the leaders of the conference was Sunni Sheikh Wisam al-Hardan. His Sahwa (Awakening) movement is made up of Sunni tribesmen who, with the backing of U.S. forces, faced down the Islamic State and al Qaeda on the battlefield. It was this history to which the sheikh referred when he said at the conference, "We have demonstrated over the years of blood and tears that we oppose extremists of all varieties, whether Sunni 'jihadists' or Iran-backed Shiite militias."

"We have also demonstrated our patriotism," Hardan continued. "We sacrificed lives for the sake of a unified Iraq and our shared aspiration to realize a federal system of government as stipulated in our nation's constitution." He now seeks to promote an Iraq that builds coexistence domestically and regionally. For those at the conference, that requires reaching out to Israelis whose families originally came from Iraq.

On the eve of World War II, Jews made up about one-third of Baghdad's population and were leaders in science, finance, and culture. In reconnecting with the Jews who were forced to leave Iraq at the time of Israel's founding, Hardan, Maj. Gen. Amer al-Juburi (a prominent member of the Shiite wing of the Juburi clan), the culture official Sahar Karim al-Tai, and the other participants proclaimed their hope, as Tai said in her speech, of "laying the cornerstone for the future of a new Iraq -- one where people of all sects, faiths, and creeds will enjoy the blessings of justice and equality." They see peace and the Abraham Accords -- the declared policy of the Biden administration in the United States -- as creating a pathway for the future they want to build.

Conference participants are now being subjected to blowback, ranging from suspension of Hardan from the Awakening movement to more direct threats from Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Those militias are calling for harsh actions against "Zionist-American dens" and the "treasonous" participants in Erbil. Politicians not wanting to be on the wrong side of the Iranians are supporting arrests. The Iranians and their proxies are producing coerced retractions in which some of the participants are forced to admit their supposed mistakes.

As important as it was for the conferencegoers to make a statement about peace with Israel, they were also pushing forward the cause of freedom of expression for all Iraqis. They accept that others may disagree with them, but if Iraq is to progress, diverse opinions must be allowed to be expressed. The calls for arresting the participants are a chilling reminder of the limits of expression in Iraq -- again, a sign of the leverage Iran continues to exert, but also an indication that Iran fears the message of the Erbil conference. Nothing could be more threatening to everything that Iran seeks in Iraq and the region than the expansion of peace, especially if it is coming from the ground up.

The conferencegoers are now seeking to create follow-on working groups with civil society groups of Israelis, starting with the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, as well as journalists and academics. I have worked for decades to promote Arab-Israeli peace, including as a U.S. Middle East envoy, and know that while governments can help end conflicts and legitimize peacemaking, it is people who make peace. Leaders can call for reconciliation, but its realization can only come from the ground up and not the top down.

So how did this unprecedented civil society-driven event come to take place? The organizer of the event on the ground is a small American nongovernmental organization, the Center for Peace Communications, led by its founder and president, Joseph Braude, with a mission of fostering people-to-people ties between Arabs and Israelis. (Full disclosure: I serve as the chair of the board of this small nonprofit.) Braude's family originally came from Iraq, and his great-great grandfather was the chief rabbi of Baghdad. Like so many of the Jewish community in Baghdad, in 1950 his grandparents lost all of their property and assets, had their Iraqi citizenship revoked and had their documents stamped: "Forbidden to come back to Iraq." They made their way to Israel, where some members of the family stayed and others, including their grandson Joseph, moved to the United States.

The Center for Peace Communications' focus is on promoting connections between peoples and cultures in the Middle East, not governments. The Erbil conference grew out of what Braude likes to call "expeditionary diplomacy." The Center for Peace Communications' representative in Iraq facilitated a broad campaign of public outreach, including with members of the Awakening movement and the Juburi clan, on behalf of the effort. Braude, Hardan, and tribal elders talked through general principles and the idea of holding a gathering to act on those principles. They worked together to produce a document to be issued at the conference. Hardan and his counterparts in a total of six governorates -- Baghdad, Ninevah, Babil, Salahuddin, and Diyala, in addition to his governorate of Anbar -- joined in developing and participating in the conference, and conceptualizing follow-on meetings with Israelis. (Multiple tribes among them, notably the Juburis, have both Sunni and Shiite wings.) This tribal base was in turn joined by movers of the urban youth protest movements of 2019-2021 (the so-called October Revolution) and intellectuals.

All those who participated in the conference clearly have a vision for the future. It very much reflects what they heard at the conference from the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's son Chemi Peres, the chair of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. By video, he addressed the gathering and spoke about the joint projects they could launch to make life better for everyone in the Middle East. The conference participants know there are now two different pathways for the region. One is embodied in the Abraham Accords and offers development; digitally based economies; scientific advancement; food, water and health security; and a future where lives are bettered and people live securely in peace. Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates are examples of this path. The other pathway offers continued conflict. It is wedded not to progress but to "resistance," ensuring failed and failing states where, as in Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen, the fundamental needs of people are sacrificed for the sake of those who hold power and use a rejectionist ideology to preserve it. This is a pathway that perpetuates the past and ensures a future only of conflict, despair, and hopelessness.

The participants of the Erbil conference have chosen the first path. Yes, they will face threats from Iran and the Shiite militias. They don't expect others to fight for them, but they count on America's support, and they are surely deserving of it.

If America's interventions in the Middle East teach anything, it is that Americans cannot impose their values, remake societies, or produce peace from the outside. But the United States does have a responsibility to support practically and materially those who will fight for themselves and embody the very values Americans believe in.

In marking the anniversary of the Abraham Accords earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared: "We want to widen the circle of peaceful diplomacy, because it's in the interests of countries across the region... for Israel to be treated like any other country." The Erbil conferencegoers are acting on the secretary's words, and the United States has a stake in their survival and success.



A cautionary tale about Arab-Israeli normalization
By Jonathan Tobin
September 30, 2021

A conference that urged Iraq to join the Abraham Accords fed hopes for expanding the growing circle of normalization. But intimidation of some of those involved demonstrates how dangerous sanity can be in the Arab world.


Those picking up The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 25 got some good news about the cause of peace in the Middle East. On its opinion page was an article by Sheikh Wisam Al-Harden, an influential tribal leader from Iraq's Anbar province who has fought with the United States against both Al-Qaeda and ISIS. A member of the leadership of the crucial Sons of Iraq Awakening movement, the sheikh is a key leader of Sunni Arabs in his country. In the article, Al-Harden spoke of his attendance at a conference in Erbil, a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq in which he and 300 other notables publicly supported normalization between their country and the state of Israel.

But the blowback about this development has provided a sobering counterpoint to optimism about peace between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. By successfully intimidating some of those who attended the conference into recanting their positions, as was the case with Al-Harden, Iran and its powerful allies inside Iraq have once again shown that while it is possible to fight Jew-hatred in the Muslim world, no one should underestimate the difficulties of that struggle. That's especially true so long as the Biden administration, to its shame, isn't fully supportive of such efforts, as proved to be the case in Iraq.

The event, which was reportedly sponsored by a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit called the Center for Peace Communications, had as its goal an effort to expand the circle of peace that was begun a year ago with the signing of the Abraham Accords in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain -- with the open approval of Saudi Arabia -- normalized relations with Israel. Later, Sudan and Morocco joined the agreement. The expectation at the time was that much of the Arab world also wanted in and would, with the proper prodding and help from the United States, further increase the number of nations embracing relations with the Jewish state.

In the wake of the 2020 election and the defeat of former President Donald Trump, who could point to the accords as a crowning achievement of his pro-Israel policies, the Biden administration was decidedly less enthusiastic about the effort. While careful not to disparage the treaties (which it insists on not referring to by the popular term "Abraham Accords"), the foreign-policy establishment that once heaped scorn on the very idea of such normalization efforts, is now back in charge in Washington. The administration knows that the Palestinians have no interest in peace or a two-state solution in which the Obama alumni that are running things again have such religious faith. But they are not that interested in helping Israel and the Arab states come together against Iran. That's because they know this rapprochement is largely motivated by fear that the Democrats are abandoning them to their fate in favor of renewed efforts to appease Tehran.

Yet it is precisely because of the administration's determination to revive Obama's failed policies that Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors are likely to stick closer to each other rather than being driven apart. Indeed, with America's already low credibility in the region taking another massive hit as a result of Biden's disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, Arab states now understand that they need Israel as an ally more than ever.

It is in that context that the idea of a conference of Iraqis -- citizens of a nation that not only has been a font of hatred for Israel since 1948 but is associated with a dark past of violent anti-Semitism in the 20th century -- supporting normalization was so heartening.
Indeed, what was so wonderful about Al-Harden's Journal article was his acknowledgment of the tragedy of Iraqi Jews, a 2,600-year-old community that numbered more than 100,000 persons, that was driven out of the country by anti-Semitic riots and hatred.

But as The New York Times reports, the backlash against the conference, which was attended by former U.S. State Department official Dennis Ross, was intense.

According to the Times, as news of the conference in Erbil spread, the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province issued arrest warrants for six of the participants. Others were fired from their government jobs. Pictures of the six -- now wanted by the authorities for advocating peace with Israel -- are now featured on huge banners erected at checkpoints between Anbar and Baghdad with the captions accusing them of "treason."

Just as ominous was the way Al-Harden was intimidated by the Jew-haters. Reportedly, at the conference, he directly advocated Iraq joining the Abraham Accords and spoke of a desire for reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, especially in the light of the fate of Iraqi Jewry and its successful integration into Israeli society. He also warned of Iraq being reduced to a similar position as Lebanon, where Iranian auxiliaries have destroyed the country's sovereignty and made it a puppet of Tehran.

But after being threatened for doing this and dismissed from his leadership position at the Awakening movement, Al-Harden completely recanted his position. The sheikh said he was deceived by the conference organizers and that he did not write the speech he gave at the conference or the Wall Street Journal article, claiming that since he does not read or write English, he had no idea what was being published in his own name.

The conference organizer, Joseph Braude, an Arabic-speaking American of Iraqi Jewish descent, insists that the sheikh understood everything that was in the article and his speech. Al-Harden's son, who did not attend the conference but did drop his father off there, is also facing an arrest warrant if he returns to Anbar. Conference attendees are remaining in Erbil, which is part of the autonomous Kurdish region that broke away from Baghdad's control decades ago. But they know if they go home, they may die.

Iran dominates much of Iraqi society in part because of the ties between Iraqi Shi'ites and Tehran, but also because Iran became immeasurably strengthened by America's toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the 2003 invasion of the country.

As much as one might expect that Iran's Iraqi allies would do their utmost to oppose the expansion of the Abraham Accords, the saddest and the most disgraceful aspect of this story is the reaction of the Biden administration. While Washington has largely remained silent about these events, it was telling that the one American statement about it demonstrated just how thoroughly Iran has also intimidated the United States.

The International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve -- the U.S.-led force that has been fighting ISIS for eight years -- did have something to say about the pro-normalization conference. In a tweet issued by the command's spokesman, U.S. Army Col. Wayne Marotto, the force officially stated that it had been, "made aware of announcements ? relating to the recent conference held in Erbil to discuss the normalization of ties with Israel. @Coalition had no prior knowledge of the event, nor do we have any affiliation with its participants."

In other words, the U.S. military made it clear that its allies who had taken a stand in favor of peace with Israel were on their own. Rather than standing with the advocates of normalization, America was doing its best to appear indifferent to their fate even as other Iraqis, egged on by Iraq, were demanding their blood.

Can we expect courageous Iraqis to stand up to Iranian influence and anti-Semitism when even America won't also do so? As JNS recently reported in an interview with a pro-normalization former Iraqi legislator who had to flee the country for his life, many Iraqis would like to join those working with Israel against Iran. But so long as the Biden administration treats this cause as if it were radioactive, advocacy for peace will remain a perilous choice.



Talk of Iraq Recognizing Israel Prompts Threats of Arrest or Death
A conference promoting normalization, organized by a little-known American group, prompted a furor, pointing to the volatility and danger in Iraqi politics.
By Jane Arraf
The New York Times
September 30, 2021

BAGHDAD -- A conference last Friday in Iraq's Kurdistan Region looked routine enough, with speakers at a satin-draped table in the ballroom of a luxury hotel and men in suits and tribal robes in the audience.

But there was nothing routine about the agenda: pressing for Iraq to normalize relations with Israel, a rare and risky public stance in Iraq that has emerged as an unexpected flash point in the simmering tensions between the Kurds and central government. Participants are now facing arrest warrants, death threats and the loss of jobs.

A standoff has ensued between Iraqi security officials who want to seize those involved and the Kurdish authorities, who are refusing to turn over the wanted Iraqis who are their guests -- despite the threat of attack by Iranian-backed militias. A key speaker has recanted and said he was tricked.

The uproar is a reminder of how volatile Iraq is, with political, economic and fighting power fragmented among competing players, with none more potent than those militias aligned with Tehran, Israel's most implacable foe.

The conference sponsor was a little-known nonprofit group based in Brooklyn, the Center for Peace Communications. Created in 2019, the group's stated goal is "to resolve identity-based conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa." In a tax filing it said more specifically that it "aims to roll back anti-Semitism and foster a culture of supportive relations with Israel."

"We knew that this would trigger enormous controversy and a backlash," said Joseph Braude, the center's founder and chief executive. "We nonetheless did it because the people in Iraq who wanted to do this asked for our help."

Iraq has historically backed the Palestinian cause, and is technically in a state of hostilities with Israel dating to Israel's founding in 1948, when more than 100,000 Iraqi Jews were expelled from the country. Iraqi law makes it a crime to "promote Zionist principles" and lists the punishment as death.

The conference in the Kurdish capital of Erbil promoted reconciliation but seems to have achieved the opposite, triggering a sectarian skirmish between the mostly Sunni Muslim attendees and Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary groups who have declared the attendees traitors. It has also stirred up dangerous disputes between competing Sunni forces two weeks before Iraqi elections.

As news of the conference spread, the Iraqi government and authorities in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar Province issued arrest warrants for at least six Iraqis they said were involved in the conference, though one warrant was later withdrawn. Other attendees were dismissed from their government jobs.

At several checkpoints between Baghdad and Anbar province, militia fighters erected huge banners with the faces of those on the arrest warrants, declaring them guilty of treason.

The main speaker at the conference, Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan, from Anbar, is now under Kurdish protection along with other conference attendees facing threats. But the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which is semiautonomous from Baghdad, is also under threat.

The region, which broke away from Iraqi government control with U.S. help three decades ago, has faced increasing attacks, including drone strikes, linked to Iranian-backed militias because of a U.S. military base in Erbil.

"We will not delay in burning all the traitors' locations with smart missiles and drones," a group called Guardians of the Blood Brigade, which has claimed responsibility for previous attacks in Erbil, warned after the conference.

In his keynote speech to the conference, Sheikh Wissam described the expulsion of Iraqi Jews after the creation of Israel in 1948 as a major tragedy and said Iraq should recognize Israel, as the United Arab Emirates and several other Arab countries did last year. He warned against Iraq becoming like Lebanon, which he said had been swallowed whole by a militia -- a reference to Hezbollah, backed by Iran.

After the speech, Sheikh Wissam, who was wounded fighting ISIS, was dismissed from the leadership of the Sunni Awakening movement, a collection of tribal forces that fought with the United States against Al Qaeda and later took on ISIS The sheikh said he was deceived by the conference organizers and did not write the speech that he gave.

The day of the conference, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece under his name calling for normalization with Israel and praising the U.A.E. for doing so. Sheikh Wissam, who does not speak or read English, later said he did not know what was in the essay.

Mr. Braude, an American who speaks Arabic and has written extensively on Middle East affairs, said he had worked with the tribal leader, with input from a Journal editor, on writing the article and insisted that the sheikh knew what it said.

The newspaper's senior director for communications, Steve Severinghaus, said The Wall Street Journal had worked through an intermediary, as it sometimes does when the writer does not speak English.

"We were told that Mr. al-Hardan had signed off on the edited version," he said, referring to Sheikh Wissam.

Mr. Braude said the speech, delivered in Arabic, was a collaboration between him and Sheikh Wissam.

"I believe that he, like other attendees, is facing enormous pressure to recant," said Mr. Braude.

"I think that, indeed, the participants knew exactly the kind of risks that they were taking," he added, when asked about the repercussions. "We are doing everything we can to help them."

Sheikh Wissam declined to be interviewed. An arrest warrant was also issued for his son, Ali Wissam al-Hardan, who said he had dropped his father off at the event but did not attend himself.

The conference featured an address by a U.A.E. official, but Mr. Braude said the Emirates did not help finance the event. He is a fellow at the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center, a think tank in Dubai, in the U.A.E., that researches political and social movements in the Muslim world.

The Center for Peace Communications is funded by American philanthropists and one European, he said, but he declined to name them. Its chairman is Dennis Ross, a retired senior U.S. State Department official, who spoke at the Erbil conference.

Mr. Braude has said that he spoke with the U.S. military about job prospects in Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion. He pleaded guilty in 2004 in New York to smuggling ancient cylinder seals looted from the Iraq Museum, which he said he had intended to turn over to the authorities.

The Iraqi Kurdistan government maintains unofficial security and other ties with Israel, but denied after the conference that it promoted normalization or had authorized any event doing so. But The New York Times has seen documentation that a senior official approved the conference, knew of its content in advance and offered logistical support.

While the conference linked the two issues, many Iraqis draw a sharp distinction between feeling an affinity for the country's former Jewish community and openness to the state of Israel.

The Iraqi Jews -- an ancient community and an integral part of Iraqi society -- were pressured by the government to give up their citizenship and property and leave Iraq after the creation of Israel in 1948. Mr. Braude's ancestors were part of that community.

"Iraq is not a monolith and people harbor different views about Jews," Mr. Braude said. "I feel like this is a long-term effort."

In the short term, it has put some people in danger. Ali al-Hardan, who along with his father was wounded fighting ISIS, said some Sunni extremist groups had declared killing him and his father halal -- religiously permitted.

"Four times Al Qaeda tried to assassinate us," he said. "One day they blew up our house in Baghdad. Now we are wanted by everyone."

(Falih Hassan and Awadh al-Taiee contributed reporting from Baghdad; Sangar Khaleel from Erbil, Iraq; and Nermeen al-Mufti from Kirkuk, Iraq.)



Iraq, Kurdistan reject conference on normalizing ties with Israel
September 25, 2021 |

Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will "take necessary measures" in response to a conference held in Erbil discussing normalization of ties with Israel held without government approval, the KRG spokesperson said in a statement on Saturday.

"The KRG was not made aware of this conference, and it was held without our approval or knowledge," said Jutyar Adil, KRG spokesperson.

"The views of the conference do not reflect the views and policies of the KRG," he added. "The KRG will take necessary measures to follow up on how this meeting was held."

The statement comes after a group of Sunnis and Shiites from across the country met in Erbil on Friday and called for Iraq to join the Abraham Accords, a US-led joint Middle East peace initiative between Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE, Sudan and Israel.

The meeting was put on by the New York-based Center for Peace Communications, which advocates for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and North Africa.

However, the federal government rejected the conference's call for normalisation in a statement on Saturday and dismissed the gathering as an "illegal meeting".

The conference "was not representative of the population's (opinion) and that of residents in Iraqi cities, in whose name these individuals purported to speak," the statement said.

The head of an Iranian-backed Iraq Shiite militia slammed the conference as "disgraceful" and called on the KRG to take action rather than just saying they were not made aware.

"The Islamic opposition will not remain quiet about this great betrayal, and we will give the Israeli enemy and those who have normalized ties with them a lesson that will stop all who think of normalization," Qais al-Khazali, the secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq said in a statement on Saturday.

"We ask the Kurdistan Regional Government for a clear stance and action against this disgraceful and offensive act towards the honorable Iraqis, and a statement of lack of awareness is not enough," he added.

Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr urged the government to "arrest all the participants", while Ahmed Assadi, an MP with the ex-paramilitary group Hashed al-Shaabi, branded them "traitors in the eyes of the law".

The Kurdistan Region's ministry of interior had earlier in the day also said that the conference "was organized by independent actors without the Kurdistan Regional Government's approval, knowledge, or participation." The Kurdistan Region Presidency said in a statement that it was in no way aware of the content of the conference and that the outcomes in no way represent the policy and stance of the Kurdistan Region.

The office of Iraqi President Barham Saleh, himself a Kurd, joined in the condemnation.

"At a time when the Presidency of the Republic affirms Iraq's firm position and support for the Palestinian cause and the implementation of the full legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, it renews Iraq's categorical rejection of the issue of normalization with Israel, and calls for respecting the will of the Iraqis and their independent national decision," read a statement from the Presidency's spokesperson.

The statement added that the meeting did not "represent the people and residents of Iraqi cities, but rather the positions of those who participated in it, in addition to being an attempt to inflame the general situation and target civil peace."

Several militia groups have released statements on PMF Telegram channels threatening to "burn down" places where "traitors" and "evil bases" are located.

The Iraqi Prime Minister earlier today called the meeting "illegal," saying that normalization is "constitutionally, legally, and politically rejected in the Iraqi state."

The culture ministry, in a statement, said its employee Tai who attended the Arbil forum did not represent the ministry, but she had taken part as "a member of a (civil society) organisation".

The 300 participants at the conference came from across Iraq, according to CPC founder Joseph Braude, a US citizen of Iraqi Jewish origin.

They included Sunni and Shiite representatives from "six governorates: Baghdad, Mosul, Salaheddin, Al-Anbar, Diyala and Babylon," extending to tribal chiefs and "intellectuals and writers", he told AFP by phone.

Other speakers at the conference included Chemi Peres, the head of an Israeli foundation established by his father, the late president Shimon Peres.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett responded to the meeting in a tweet Saturday, saying this "call for peace with Israel? comes from below and not above, from the people and not from the government." He said that the meeting is an important recognition of the "historical injustice done to the Jews of Iraq" and that "the State of Israel is reaching out?for peace."

The Jewish representation was opened in 2015 after the Kurdish parliament passed a law officially recognizing the Jewish community with full ethno-religious rights, along other minority religions.

In 2017 the official representative of the Jewish community announced that they have suspended their representation at Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government's Ministry of Religious Affairs indefinitely for "some reasons" without giving any further details.

In 2016 Iraqi Kurds held a funeral for Shimon Peres, former President and Prime Minister of Israel, in a show of respect for his support for Kurds.

There are a large number of Kurdish Jews in the Kurdistan Region who mostly live in Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaimani provinces.

Iraqi Kurdistan does have a warmer history with the Jewish state. Many of the current Kurdish leaders have visited Israel in past decades.

Israel has a longstanding relationship with the Kurdish people. In the early 1960's, Mustafa Barzani and his Peshmerga fighters received training and support in the Jewish State.

The creation of Israel and the rise of Arab nationalism in the mid-twentieth century dramatically altered the situation, spurring most of Kurdistan's Jews to leave.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, there are around 400 families of Jewish descent who converted to Islam and therefore are officially registered as Muslims, according to authorities.

In 1948, there were about 150,000 Jews in Iraq, a community that had lived there for more than 2,000 years.

But the vast majority left after the creation of Israel that year. In 1951, 120,000 Jews, around 96 percent of the Iraqi Jewish community, emigrated to the Jewish state.

The rest followed after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which paved the way for 15 years of almost uninterrupted violence.


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All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.