From Saddam to Iran’s militias: Iraqis cannot suggest ties with Israel

The attempt in Iraq to shut down any discussion about Israel or the Abraham Accords is tied to Iran’s regional ambitions.

 Iraq's President Barham Salih meets with Iran's new President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, Iran August 5, 2021. (photo credit: Presidency of the Republic of Iraq Office/Handout via REUTERS)
Iraq's President Barham Salih meets with Iran's new President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, Iran August 5, 2021.
(photo credit: Presidency of the Republic of Iraq Office/Handout via REUTERS)

Iraqis who took part in a meeting that reportedly suggested ties between Israel and Iraq have faced threats of imprisonment and condemnation at the highest levels in Iraq.

The uproar is not surprising. It is part of posturing in Baghdad against Israel. Underpinning the reaction is not Iraq’s bureaucracy or even average Iraqis, but rather the hand of Iran and its militias in Iraq who want to use the country as a platform for attacks on the Jewish state, the US and others. 

It is important to understand the background here. Iraq has attempted in the past to posture as being at the forefront of anti-Israel struggles in the region. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the country led regional rhetoric against Israel, even firing Scud missiles at it during the Gulf War. The missiles were the last gasps of a failing regime that had already exhausted itself invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia, provoking a large US-led coalition that ejected Saddam from Kuwait and led Iraq to ruin. 

But Saddam’s threat was more serious than the Scuds. The regime was a regional powerhouse in the 1980s. It had attempted a push for nuclear weapons, which led to the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in 1982. More than that, Iraq had participated in three wars against Israel: in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Its participation in the 1948 war included sending small forces as far as the Jenin area.

In 1973, a more serious Iraqi threat emerged when the country sent elements of its 3rd Armored Division to Syria to aid the war against Israel. The Iraqi forces were decimated between October 11 and 14. Iraq also acted against its Jewish minority, seeking to punish their remnants over the existence of Israel. In 1969, fourteen Jews were hanged in Iraq, accused of being “spies.”   

This is the background of Iraq’s anti-Israel stance. It is a stance in which Iraq is the aggressor, a country that has waged war against Israel since the 1940s and sought to take the lead in regional efforts against the Jewish state. Where once these efforts were waged under the banner of Arab nationalism or Saddam Hussein’s attempt to control the Middle East, they have now shifted because a much weaker Iraq is now being infiltrated by Iranian-backed militias.

There is no real evidence that the average Iraqi cares much or thinks about Israel often. Iraq is a country suffering extreme deprivation, economic woes, environmental catastrophes and occupation by pro-Iranian militias that target academics, media and others who dare to critique Tehran. It is also a very divided society, with Iraqi Shi’ites ostensibly having power under Iran’s influence, and Iraqi Sunnis pushed aside in recent decades, after having run Iraq under Saddam.

THE AUTONOMOUS Kurdistan Region of Iraq has sought to distance itself from this sectarian extremism and showcase a more open minded path forward for Iraq. 

However, the Kurdish region also has many obstacles in its attempt to be different than the rest of Iraq. It is threatened by Iran and Iranian agents and militias. The militias frequently target US forces who are based in Erbil in the Kurdish region. Those forces are part of the US-led coalition against ISIS and are in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad since 2014. They are in a precarious position; a tweet by their spokesperson distancing themselves from the “conference” that suggested ties with Israel illustrates how concerned they are to be drawn into some kind of controversy. 

Over the years, the Kurdish region has often been accused by Iran and also by Turkey of being too open to Israel. This dates from historic ties that Kurds have had with Jews and also to support that Israel gave to the Kurdish region in the 1960s and 70s when it was resisting Saddam’s genocidal rule. In those days, support for Kurds would go through Iran, at a time when Tehran was more amenable to Jerusalem.

Now everything is reversed. Iran is the most anti-Israel country in the region, while the Arab states are mostly at peace with Israel. The Abraham Accords are part of that change. Concerns over Tehran’s attempt to infiltrate and place militias in control of Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon are one reason that countries in the region see Israel as a potential partner against Iran. 

BULLET-RIDDLED mural of Saddam Hussein in southern Iraq, along the road to Baghdad (credit: PICRYL)BULLET-RIDDLED mural of Saddam Hussein in southern Iraq, along the road to Baghdad (credit: PICRYL)

But that perception of partnership has its limits. The reports that 300 Iraqis took part in an event in Erbil in the Kurdistan region, supporting the Abraham Accords and ties with Israel, were greeted with anger in Baghdad. A lot of the anger, as well as calls for court cases to be opened against participants, is virtue signaling. The goal is for Iraqi politicians, from the president to Muqtada al-Sadr, to jump over one another to show off who can condemn the conference and Israel.

Al-Sadr must posture because he has been holding the keys to power in Baghdad for years. Navigating between Iran’s role in Baghdad in which Iran has influence through Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance in parliament, and his outreach to Saudi Arabia and other states in recent years, Sadr must show that he is tough on the Israel issue.  

THE PRIME Minister and president must posture as well. President Barham Salih is Kurdish and would not be anti-Israel in a normal Iraq, free from Iran’s domination. But the one-time academic has put out a statement. Current prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi came to power after pro-Iran militias massacred Iraqis in 2019. He is also someone that in a normal world, untethered from Iran’s guns in Iraq, would be open minded, liberal and able to show nuance on the Israel issue. “Proposing the concept of normalization is constitutionally, legally and politically rejected in the Iraqi state,” read the statement from the Prime Minister's Office.  

The event in Erbil discussing Israel also comes prior to Iraqi elections, so politicians must pretend to be very angry about this conference. In addition Wisam al-Hardan, who is described as a “leader of the 'Sons of Iraq Awakening' movement” also wrote about the event in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal. “He said it gathered more than 300 people, including tribal leaders, intellectuals and youth activists from the October protest movement, from Baghdad, Mosul, Anbar, Babel, Salahaddin and Diyala,” reports claimed. Now Iraq has supposedly ordered the arrest of officials who took part.  

The “outrage” in Iraq appears more like lip service than reality. The Arab Weekly says the event played into the hands of pro-Iran militias. That is a correct analysis since these militias want to target Erbil and have accused Kurds in the past of being pro-Israel or even a “second Israel” within Iraq. Frequent rumors in pro-Iran media paint Erbil as being linked to Israel or write about “Mossad bases” in Iraq.

This is part of the historical conspiracy rumor-mongering nonsense that boils to the surface in some regional media, designed to distract the average person from failings at home by whispering into their ears that “Israel” or “the Jews” are the scapegoat. Of course this has very real consequences and also has its roots in historical antisemitism in the region and Europe, going back to the Damascus Blood Libel and other infamous incidents.  

The Abraham Accords could have opened the door for more nuanced discussions about relations between Israel and countries in the region, whether it be Iraq, Tunisia, Oman, Qatar or others. What we see today is that hostility to Israel is often coming from countries occupied by pro-Iran militias, meaning that opposition comes at the barrel of a gun.  

THE LARGER story in the region is that Egypt, Jordan and other states want Iraq to rejoin the Arab world along with Syria, and to diminish the reach of Iran’s tentacles. Toward that end there have been high-level meetings in Baghdad in which the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and others have sought to shore up Iraq’s position. Even France has attended, and Baghdad has positioned itself as a place that Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia might even meet to discuss regional issues. Jordan has announced plans to open the border with Syria.  

But what does all that have to do with the conference in Erbil?

To posture about credentials of being strong in the region, the Iraqi leadership feels the need to show off anti-Israel rhetoric. Meanwhile, two parallel processes take place. “We have established six armies outside our borders.  These armies include the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Hamas and Jihad movements, the regime forces in Syria, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces and the Houthi militia in Yemen,” an Iranian commander reportedly said this week.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that “unidentified aircraft” struck pro-Iranian militias in Syria. In the past, Iran and its allied militias in Iraq have accused Israel of these airstrikes. The US has also struck pro-Iran militias in Syria. 

This matters because Tehran uses Iraq as a base for militias that traffic weapons to Syria and Hezbollah via the Albukamal border crossing in Israel. In 2018, a headquarters of one of these militias, Kataib Hezbollah, was struck in Syria. Its leader, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, was killed in the US airstrike that killed Iran’s Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.  

At the same time, Iran was one of the countries that pushed hard against the Kurdistan region’s independence referendum in September 2017. During the lead-up to the referendum there were many Israeli flags flown at rallies in places like Erbil and Dohuk.

IT IS IMPORTANT, then, to see the opposition to this recent conference as tied directly to these regional tectonic changes. Iran and its militia allies in Baghdad not only want to use Iraq as a platform to strike at Israel through the movement of ballistic missiles, drones and weapons to Iraq, but they also want to make sure no one in Iraq can express opinions supporting Israel or critical of Iran. That is why Iran likely ordered the murder of Iraqi researcher Hisham al-Hashimi in 2020 and Lebanese publisher Lokman Slim in 2021, as part of a campaign to silence any critical intellectual voices.  

The rhetoric in Iraq, and the attempt to shut down any discussion about Israel or the Abraham Accords, is tied to Iran’s regional ambitions and attempts to silence anyone who steps out of line. At the same time, the perception that the event was a distraction, or even somehow helps the pro-Iran agenda in the lead-up to elections, is anchored in the view that the only way to pry Iraq away from the Iranian system in the region is to push Iraqi nationalist voices.

This theory – that Iraqi nationalism can supplant Iran’s tentacles – goes back to the era of 2016 and 2017 when Western policymakers sought to champion Haider Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister during the war on ISIS. In fact, attempts to strengthen him, and even Sadr, led to Western opposition to the Kurdish referendum in 2017. The presence of Israeli flags at rallies in the Kurdish region that year alarmed Tehran. The outcome was that the Kurdish region was weakened, and Iran was strengthened and has become more concerned about whether the US and others will stay in Iraq.

Israel, now under Central Command’s area of operations, is also being drawn into any controversies that might involve the US coalition in Iraq, precipitating the tweet in which the coalition distanced itself from this conference.   

Iraqis can’t discuss Israel today without fear of persecution or prosecution. These same legal means have also been used by Hezbollah in Lebanon to silence any discussion that might appear open to the Jewish state. People in Lebanon, Iraq and other countries are quietly being more open to looking positively upon the Abraham Accords and other trends in the region.

The constraints placed on Iraqis come not only with the legacy of Saddam’s anti-Israel rule, but also the new Iranian attempt to use their country against Israel. For many in the region, that attempt to hijack Iraq is not in anyone’s interests. The conference became a symbol of this wider controversy.