Talk of Iraq recognising Israel prompts threats of arrest or death

Iraqis at the conference of peace and reclamation organised by US think-tank Centre for Peace Communications in Arbil, Kurdistan, on Sept 24, 2021.
Iraqis at the conference of peace and reclamation organised by US think-tank Centre for Peace Communications in Arbil, Kurdistan, on Sept 24, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (NYTIMES) - A conference last Friday (Sept 24) 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 normalise relations with Israel, a rare and risky public stance in Iraq that has emerged as an unexpected flashpoint in the simmering tensions between the Kurds and central government.

Participants are now facing arrest warrants, death threats and the loss of jobs.

A stand-off 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 Iran, Israel's most implacable foe.

The conference sponsor was a little-known non-profit group based in Brooklyn, New York, the Centre 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 Mr Joseph Braude, the centre'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 Irbil 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 the 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, Mr 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 semi-autonomous from Baghdad, is also under threat.

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

"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 Irbil, warned after the conference.

In his keynote speech to the conference, Mr al-Hardan described the expulsion of Iraqi Jews after the creation of Israel in 1948 as a major tragedy and said Iraq should recognise Israel as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 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, Mr al-Hardan, who was wounded fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, was dismissed from the leadership of the Sunni Awakening movement, a collection of tribal forces that fought with the United States against al-Qaida and later took on the ISIS group. The sheikh said he was deceived by the conference organisers 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 normalisation with Israel and praising the UAE for doing so. Mr Al-Hardan, who does not speak or read English, later said he did not know what was in the essay.

Iraqis attend the conference of peace and reclamation organised by US think-tank Centre for Peace Communications in Arbil, Kurdistan, on Sept 24, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

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.

Mr Braude said the speech, delivered in Arabic, was a collaboration between him and Mr al-Hardan.

"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."

Mr Al-Hardan declined to be interviewed. An arrest warrant was also issued for his son, Mr 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 UAE official, but Mr Braude said the UAE did not help finance the event. He is a fellow at the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, a think-tank in Dubai, UAE, that researches political and social movements in the Muslim world.

The Centre for Peace Communications is funded by American philanthropists and one European, he said, but he declined to name them. Its chair is Mr Dennis Ross, a retired senior US State Department official, who spoke at the Irbil conference.

Mr Braude has said that he spoke with the US 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 authorities.

The Iraqi Kurdistan government maintains unofficial security and other ties with Israel but denied after the conference that it promoted normalisation or had authorised 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 harbour different views about Jews," Mr Braude said. "I feel like this is a long-term effort."