Shia fighters gather to fight against Islamic State militants in al-Fatha northeast of Baiji, October 18, 2015.
(photo credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)
Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the Iranian-backed Shia militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, is using a new Arabic hashtag on Twitter. “Jerusalem is Palestine’s capital,” he tweeted on Tuesday in the run-up to US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the holy city as Israel’s capital.
“Trump would not have dared to think of moving the American Embassy without Saudi-led Arab normalization [with Israel],” he wrote. Khazali’s statement is one example of anger in Shia militia circles in Iraq that could threaten US-led coalition troops in the country.
Khazali was once imprisoned in Iraq for attacks on US troops in 2007. He was released in 2009 and, along with his militia, he has risen in influence in Baghdad. His fighters played a role in the liberation of areas around Mosul from Islamic State and in Baghdad’s decision to wrest control of Kirkuk from the Kurdistan Regional Government in October.
Since 2016 his militia, which is part of the broader Shia militia front of the Hashd Al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces, has been part of the Iraqi security forces.
In October when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson encouraged Iraq to disband the militias, Khazali threatened the US and told Americans to “go home.”
After Trump’s speech, Khazali tweeted on Thursday, “Trump’s decision considering Jerusalem as the capital of the Zionist entity is the beginning of the end for the racist Israeli project.” His hashtag on this tweet was blunt: “Everyone kill Israel.” He called on all countries in the Middle East to close their US embassies, “mere condemnations and denunciations are laughable.”
On Thursday, Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shi’ite Iraqi cleric who once opposed the US role in Iraq soon after the 2003 invasion, gave a speech threatening that his and other Shi’ite forces “could reach its [Israel’s] border through Syria.” He called upon the Arab League to adopt a “jihad position” against Trump’s decision. Sadr also said that if Iraqi militias were ready to fight the US, than “we will be the first soldiers.”
Since then, according to local reports, his activists have taken to the streets in Sadr city in Baghdad, chanting “No, no America.” According to a tweet by human rights activist Lawk Ghafuri, US flags were burned and protesters chanted, “Trump is the sponsor of terrorism.”
In a speech the PLO Ambassador to Iraq appeared to support action by Baghdad against Israel. He claimed that “Palestine and Jerusalem were liberated four times by Iraqis throughout history.” In his speech he referenced Saladin during the Crusades, and the Babylonian invasion in the 6th century BCE.
According to a Twitter account that is linked to the Popular Mobilization Forces’ media office, former prime minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki called Trump’s decision a “declaration of war.”
At the same time that Shi’ite militias in Iraq have threatened the US and Israel, Kurdish voices have taken to social media to support recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Reacting to claims in Iraq that a new “Saladin” would emerge to lead the battle against Israel and the US, Yadgar Ismail reminded Twitter that the “people of Saladin are denied their rights in your artificial state.”
Saladin was Kurdish, and Ismail pointed out that Kurds are being denied their identity and self-governance. The Twitter account “Kurdistan army” also wondered about the hypocrisy of those in the Middle East who consider Jerusalem occupied when “they have occupied Greater Kurdistan since the Sykes-Picot Agreement [of 1916].”
Similarly, Mohammed A. Salih said that Iraqis had been silent when Kirkuk, the “Kurdistan Jerusalem,” was occupied, but were angered about Jerusalem.
Dilman Abdulkader, a researcher on Kurdish studies, wrote, “Kurdistan’s Jerusalem Kirkuk was Arabized and invaded by Iran with permission of Iraq and Turkey. All Kurds must support Israel with their capital, Jerusalem.”
The general sentiment among Kurds is that it is hypocritical for voices in Baghdad to be outraged about Jerusalem and Palestinian rights while ignoring Kurdish rights. They understand the Israeli struggle for Jerusalem as similar to their own struggle for Kirkuk and for independence in the face of Arab nationalism and Iran’s theocratic regime.