A lot can change in a year.
Before the historic agreements between Israel and Arab countries from August 2020, it would have been inconceivable in Iraq to openly discuss the possibility of normalizing relations with the Jewish state. But last week, speakers at a conference attended by hundreds in the Kurdish region of the country did just that.
“For regional peace, it is both necessary and inevitable to recognize Israel as a friendly country,” Sahar al-Ta’i, a senior researcher at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, told participants. “We want peace with Israel.”
While this public appeal is unprecedented, the backlash shows that Iraq is still a long way from declaring peace with Israel. Instead of bolstering the prospects for peace, the September 24 conference may have played into the hands of hardliners who are vehemently opposed to normalization.
The Iraqi government condemned the conference and issued arrest warrants for two of the keynote speakers and at least three other participants, including al-Ta’i, who was also dismissed from her position at the Ministry of Culture. The conference organizer said al-Ta’i had attended in a private capacity.
It is illegal under Iraqi law to promote “Zionist principles”.
NBC News was unable to reach al-Ta’i by phone for comment.
Powerful groups backed by Iran also condemned the meeting in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region. They demanded that those involved be prosecuted.
“The Zionist killing unit will have no place in Iraq of prophets, saints, martyrs and righteous people,” Fatah, a political bloc in the Iraqi parliament that represents Tehran-backed Shiite militias and parties, said in a September 25 statement Israel.
According to Harith Hasan, a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, the conference has proven counterproductive in terms of normalization.
“It mobilized Islamist parties, Iranian-oriented parties, which found a good excuse to come forward as the ones who really represent Iraqi public opinion and are against Israel,” he said.
Iraq has technically been at war with Israel since its inception and has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Palestinian cause in the Arab world for decades. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired Scud rockets at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War.
Even after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalized relations with Israel, this remains politically and socially taboo in Iraq.
While there was a desire for normalization, Fanar Haddad, a former foreign relations advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said the country’s weak centralized power and Iranian influence are not seriously considering recognizing Israel at this time.
“Iraq simply does not have the centralized decision-making authority that would be required for such a reorientation,” he said of foreign policy.
In a country where militias have largely gone with impunity, the fierce backlash at the conference could discourage Iraqis, who support the normalization of relations with Israel, from speaking again anytime soon. At least two attendees have since said they had been misled as to the purpose of the meeting, and one apologized to the Iraqis and the Palestinian people.
One of them was Sheikh Vizam al-Hardan, the leader of the Sons of Iraq Awakening Council, whose fighters joined US troops in the war against Al Qaeda at the height of the Iraq war and later fought against the terrorist group Islamic State.
Al-Hardan’s name appeared on one op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Last month he called on Iraq to establish full relations with Israel and was one of the speakers at the Erbil event. But as the backlash built on the conference, he said in a video message posted online on Sept. 25 that he believed the meeting was about peace and tolerance among the Iraqi people and was surprised that the Statement he read aloud that normalization with Israel mentioned the event.
“I read the statement that was written for me without knowing its contents,” he said. “I condemn the content of the final declaration and what is in it.”
The next day, an arrest warrant was issued against al-Hardan. Then on Monday he lost his job as chairman of the Sons of Iraq Awakening Council. Al-Hardan could not be reached for comment.
Joseph Braude, President of The center for peace communication, a New York-based group that promotes engagement between Israelis and their Arab neighbors and organized the Erbil conference, said al-Hardan knew what was going on.
Braude said al-Hardan wrote the speech with his help and al-Hardan signed the journal article, which Braude translated from Arabic into English.
Steve Severinghaus, the journal’s chief communications director, said the newspaper worked through an intermediary and was told that al-Hardan had approved the edited version.
Local journalists said al-Ta’i and al-Hardan are staying in Erbil, where the Kurdish authorities have not yet arrested them. NBC News was unable to independently verify these reports. The Kurdish authorities have provided protection to Iraqi politicians who transgress the central government in the past. So it wouldn’t be the first time Erbil has defied Baghdad’s orders.
Braude said his organization is doing everything it can to help participants who are now at risk.
Despite the backlash, he said the conference spoke on a much larger trend in Iraq and rejected speculation that the peace initiative would be driven from abroad.
Millions of Iraqis want “civil engagement and partnership with Israelis” but are prevented from saying so openly, he said.
Braude cites Iraqi engagement with the Israeli foreign ministry Facebook page in Iraqi dialect, Interviews with Iraqis over several years and a survey Israel Foreign Ministry to substantiate claims of full support for normalization of relations.
Braude, who says his mother was an Iraqi Jew from Baghdad who fled in the early 1950s, founded the company The center for peace communication. The organization was founded in 2019 and receives most of its funding from private American philanthropists and none from the Middle East, he added. He did not disclose who his donors are, but said the center does not accept government funding.
A State Department official said the US government was not involved in the conference and only found out about it afterwards. The Biden government supports efforts to deepen relations between Israel and countries in the region, the official added.
The Jewish community in Iraq dates back to ancient Babylonia, and in 1910 about a quarter of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. They played an important role in establishing the modern Iraqi state, but 1941 Nazi-inspired riots later killed Jews and helped displace the population. In the early 1950s, many fled to the newly founded State of Israel.
There are no official statistics on how many Jews live in Iraq today, but the Meir Taweig Synagogue, the main synagogue in central Baghdad, is closed and few Iraqis openly identify themselves as Jewish.
After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran became an important power broker in that country, supporting Shiite Islamist parties and militias that have dominated it ever since.
Analysts said the conference was being used by Iranian-leaning groups as evidence that there are people in Iraq who are pushing for normalization with Israel. Haddad said these groups have often used normalization as a political slander to discredit and delegitimize their opponents.
“That now allows you to put an imaginary meat on an imaginary bone,” he said.
But Braude hoped that the votes for peace would prevail.
“It is not new that Tehran’s deputies are trying to silence Iraqi dissidents,” he said. “What is new is that for the first time people come together in public to call for peace.”