Iranwire – Fallout continues over a pro-Israel conference held by Iraqi Kurds in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, last Friday. The Conference of Peace and Reclamation, organized by US think tank the Center for Peace Communications, amplified Iraqi tribal leaders’ calls for a normalization of relations with Israel. It was attended by more than 300 Sunni and Shia community leaders from Baghdad, Salah ad-Din, Diyala, Babil, Mosul, Al Anbar and other parts of Iraq.
On September 28, Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council issued arrest warrants against three of the main organizers, Wissam Al-Hardan, Mithal al-Alusi and Sahar Karim al-Ta’i. Warrants have also since been issued for eight other participants at the gathering, which both the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad have loudly condemned, calling its central call for normalization “illegal”.
But all this commotion is also taking place in a country that borders the Islamic Republic of Iran, an avowed foe of Israel with myriad vested interests – and rapidly making inroads – in the politics of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. In at least one attendee’s telling, this was one of the main motives for the conference being held.
In September 2020, the Abraham Accords were signed by Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in the presence of US President Donald Trump and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Soon Morocco and Sudan joined the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan in recognizing Israel. But this is the first time the same has been advocated in Iraq at a major gathering.
At the time, the Islamic Republic instantly condemned the accords. “The UAE has betrayed the world of Islam, the Arab world, regional countries and the Palestinian cause,” announced Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Then-President Hassan Rouhani warned the UAE and Bahrain would be responsible for any “consequences” resulting from the establishment of diplomatic ties. And then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the accords as politically motivated, tweeting that Donald Trump “desperately needed a campaign photo”.
“Iraq Must Free Itself from Iran’s Interference”
One of the parties now subject to an arrest warrant in Iran, ex-MP and former leader of the Iraqi Umma (“People”) Party, Mithal al-Alusi, sought this week to absolve the Kurdish people from culpability for the event and better explain the context.
“The conference was held by Iraqi Sunni and Shiite figures,” he said, “and the Kurds have no involvement in this conference, which calls for normalization with Israel. It comes as a result of several Arab and regional meetings that rejected war and militias, and called for an independent Iraqi civilian state, away from the Iranian hegemony.
“The central government and most political leaders want Iraq to be an independent country that has normal relations with Israel. But their desire has been constrained by paramilitary groups and the Revolutionary Guards. These groups are destroying them as well.
“Iraq must free itself from Iran’s influence and interference. The Iraqi government must not be part of the policies of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Revolutionary Guards. From this angle, an accord with Israel guarantees peace instead of intimidation, violence and terror.”
Al-Alusi also emphasized that the tribal leaders and most other participants were “afraid for their lives” because of Iran and paramilitary forces allied with the Islamic Republic.
Other attendees staunchly defended the call for normalization. “We demand our integration into the Abraham Accords,” said Sahar Karim al-Ta’i, a senior official in Iraq’s Ministry of Culture. “Just as these agreements provide for diplomatic relations between the signatories and Israel, we also want normal relations with Israel. No force, local or foreign, has the right to prevent this call.”
She also addressed the issue of Israeli Jews of Iraqi origin: “For the sake of peace in the region, it’s become imperative to recognize Israel as a friendly country, especially since half a million Israelis are of Iraqi origin. Their eyes are still turned towards Iraq… They’re still waiting for the moment when Israel is recognized as their country, and the country of their compatriots.’’
KDP Counters Iran’s Accusations
Hardline elements in the Islamic Republic wasted no time in condemning the event. Javan newspaper wrote that Kurdistan was riddled with “Western, Arab and Zionist espionage bases” and claimed that Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), was seeking the “disintegration” of Iraq.
Conservative pundit Seyyed Reza Sadrolhosseini also sought to frame the conference as an attempt at sabotage by Israel, telling ILNA news agency: “Israel’s goal is to disintegrate Iraq… Baghdad must be more mindful of developments in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
But Ali Ouni, a member of the KDP’s executive committee, told IranWire: “The main thing to remember is that the conference was held according to the Iraqi constitution. I believe the Center for Peace Communications was given permission to hold the conference because it is a civil institution, not because it advocates the normalization of relations between Iraq and Israel. The KRG was one of the main forces that helped to establish security and peace after the assault from Islamic State, and made it possible for displaced people to return to Iraq.”
That said, Ouni told IranWire he supported the Kurdish government’s condemnation of the call for normalization of relations with Israel. Such a proposal, he said, was outside the purview of the regional government.
“Iraq’s foreign policy is decided by central government, not the KRG,” he said. “If the government of Iraq decides to normalize relations with Israel, there’s no doubt that Kurdistan will be included in that normalization. The question of diplomatic ties with Israel doesn’t depend on the Kurds or the KRG: they’re part of the Iraqi system and must follow its foreign policies.”
The choice of Erbil for the conference, he said, was “natural” because of how many Iraqi citizens – including Sunni and Shia tribal leaders – took refuge in the region during the war with IS. “Like other members of society, they have their own specific civil institutions and run their own businesses alongside their civil activities.”
Some Iraqi government officials and religious leaders have publicly raged against the event being allowed to take place in Kurdistan. “Generally,” Ouni said, “Iraq’s various parties and political forces, especially Shia groups, do not have good relations with the Kurdistan region; sometimes relations are even hostile. Besides pushing to freeze the budget allocated to the KRG by central government, they have repeatedly attacked the Kurdistan region with rockets and drones.”
Local Journalist: Erbil Conference Was a “Test”
A journalist in Erbil, who asked not to be named, told IranWire that an event as sensitive as this would have needed clearance from senior central government officials, not just the KRG. In other words, Baghdad must have known about it in advance. Like many Kurds, he added, many central government officials, especially the Sunnis, are in favor of stronger ties to Israel and the US.
“In my view,” he added, “holding the conference in Erbil and – bringing up the idea of normalizing relations with Israel there – might have been a preliminary test to evaluate the appetite of various political and social groups in Iraq for it. If the results are favorable, they can take practical steps to achieve this goal.
“Without this, given Iran’s influence in Iraq, normalizing relations with Israel would be very difficult, even impossible. The religious and political views of Shia groups in Iraq are totally in tune with the policies of the Islamic Republic.”
IranWire contacted Jutiar Adel, a spokesman for the KRG, to ask him about the Erbil event but he declined to respond.