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Tribal leader said to deny writing WSJ normalization op-ed

After death threats, Iraqis who attended pro-Israel normalization summit recant

Speaker says he didn’t mean to call for peace with Israel, others say they were misled about conference’s content; pro-Iran militia says normalizers are ‘legitimate targets’

Iraqis attend a conference of peace and reclamation organized by US think tank Center for Peace Communications in Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on September 24, 2021. (Safin Hamed/AFP)
Iraqis attend a conference of peace and reclamation organized by US think tank Center for Peace Communications in Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on September 24, 2021. (Safin Hamed/AFP)

Iraqis who participated in a conference calling for normalizing ties with Israel disavowed or recanted their remarks after being subjected to death threats and arrest warrants, with some participants saying they had been duped into attending.

Last Friday, over 300 Iraqis from across the country gathered at a conference in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where speakers called for peace and reconciliation with Israel. Iraq has been at war with Israel since 1948, when the Jewish state was established.

The conference immediately ignited a firestorm in Iraqi media, with Iraq’s president and prime minister condemning the event as illegal and vowing to prosecute those who attended. Iraqi law mandates strict penalties for citizens and residents who maintain contact with Israelis. Normalization efforts are punishable by life in prison.

Three arrest warrants were issued following the conference: for tribal leader Wisam al-Hardan and Iraqi Culture Ministry official Sahar al-Ta’i, both of whom spoke at the conference, and for Iraqi parliamentarian Mithal al-Alousi, a longtime advocate of Israel normalization.

It is unclear if anyone had been arrested, as al-Hardan is reportedly under the protection of Kurdish authorities and Al-Alousi resides in Germany.

Al-Ta’i has not been publicly heard from since her statements at the conference, although the Culture Ministry has disavowed her.

Dr. Sahar al-Ta’i, an Iraqi advocate of normalizing ties with Israel, speaks at a peace conference in Erbil, Kurdistan, on Friday, September 24, 2021. (Screenshot)

But in an Iraq where judicial authority is weak, the greater threat to participants may be from Iran-backed militias, who have threatened to kill normalization advocates who attended the conference.

“Those who adopted the idea of normalization in this gathering are all legitimate targets of the Islamic Resistance…We shall not abate from pursuing those traitors wherever they are,” said the Guardians of the Blood Brigades, an Iran-backed militia which has previously fired rockets at Erbil.

Powerful pro-Iran cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a politician who himself commands the Peace Brigade militias, threatened to take the law into his own hands.

“I repeat that if they are not arrested, we will take strict national measures against the normalizations and the recreant,” al-Sadr said in a statement on Thursday.

Iraqi Shiite Muslim leader and head of Hikma party Ammar al-Hakim (L) and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr meet in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf on May 17, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / Haidar HAMDANI)

The conference was organized by the Center for Peace Communications, led by Joseph Braude, an American Jew of Iraqi descent. Braude has worked for several years to establish Arab forums that call for normalization with Israel.

But many of the participants, including main speaker al-Hardan, have now recanted the conference’s call for normalization following the firestorm. Al-Hardan, who led tribal militias against the al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror groups, also signed an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal calling for normalization with Israel that came out that same Friday night.

“More than 300 of my fellow Iraqis from Baghdad, Mosul, Al-Anbar, Babel, Salahuddin and Diyala joined me Friday in this northern city, where we issued a public demand for Iraq to enter into relations with Israel and its people through the Abraham Accords,” al-Hardan apparently wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

According to the New York Times, al-Hardan now disputes that the op-ed that carries his name was in fact, written by him, saying instead it was by Braude.

Founder of US think-tank Center for Peace Communications (CPC) Joseph Braude speaks to journalists during a conference on peace and reclamation in Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan autonomous region, on September 24, 2021 (Safin HAMED / AFP)

In an interview with the Kurdish Rudaw media outlet, al-Hardan said that he had intended to call for establishing ties with Iraq’s Jewish diaspora, not with Israel. He further said that his speech had been edited without his knowledge.

“I thought this conference would be a call for peace and affection between the members of the Iraqi people after the victories achieved against Islamic State terrorism,” al-Hardan said in a video “condemning” the conference.

“I read the statement that was written for me, without knowledge of its contents. I was surprised to find that it aspired to normalization with the Zionist entity,” al-Hardan said.

In videos from the conference, al-Hardan can be seen reading out the speech without batting an eye even as he read out the controversial passages calling for normalization with Israel.

Wisam al-Hardan, a Sunni tribal leader from Anbar province in Iraq, calls for normalization with Israel at a conference in Erbil on Friday, September 24, 2021 (Credit: Center for Peace Communications)

Other participants later said they were duped into attending the conference. Some fingered al-Hardan, who they say promised them salaries, benefits and employment in government ministries in exchange for showing up.

“We’re against normalization. We’re asking the prime minister to get involved personally, because we’ve become targets for murder by every segment of the Iraqi people, and we’re innocent [of calling for normalization],” two tribal leaders who attended the conference said in a televised statement carried by the Kurdish television network NRT.

The gathering was held in Iraqi Kurdistan, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under Iraq’s federal system. Kurdish officials have occasionally traveled to Israel, while Israelis have quietly visited Kurdish areas as well.

But Kurdistan’s government distanced itself from the event following the controversy, pleading for other Iraqi factions to deal with the matter “more calmly.”

“We were neither aware of the meeting nor of its contents. What was expressed there is not the opinion, policy or position of [Kurdistan],” Kurdish president Masoud Barazani said in a statement.

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