Visits by Iraqi officials to Israel that were announced by the Jewish state stirred controversy Monday in Iraq, where the deputy parliamentary speaker demanded a probe to identify those who crossed a “red line.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday that three Iraqi delegations visited Israel in 2018, and details were also later released by media.
Baghdad does not recognize Israel, and is technically in a state of war with the country.
First Deputy Speaker of Parliament Hassan Karim al-Kaabi in a statement called for “an investigation… to identify those who went to the occupied territory, particularly if they are lawmakers.”
“To go to the occupied territory is a red line, and an extremely sensitive issue for all Muslims,” the statement said.
Kaabi is close to Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr, whose bloc won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s legislative election last year.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the 15 Iraqi visitors were “influential Shiite and Sunni personalities in the country,” but did not give names.
The ministry said the Iraqi travelers had visited “Israeli officials and universities,” as well as the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
A spokesman for the memorial told AFP that “a group of 10 Iraqis” had “undertaken a guided tour in late December.”
He said he was not able to give details on the identity and roles of the Iraqis.
Israeli TV news company Hadashot, which described the Iraqis as “local leaders,” reported Sunday that they had stressed that they were not taking part in an official visit and that secrecy was paramount.
A significant Iraqi Jewish community lives in Israel, and regularly calls for a normalization of ties between Baghdad and the Jewish state.
But the question remains sensitive and Israel’s support for an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in late 2017 provoked Iraqi officials’ ire.
Israel was the only country to back the vote, which Baghdad deemed illegal.
From ‘Iraq proper’
The Iraqi leaders who visited Israel were not from Iraqi Kurdistan, Sunday’s TV report stressed, but rather from “Iraq proper — that is, Baghdad.” The three delegations comprised both Sunni and Shi’ite members — “influential figures in Iraq.”
The trips were mainly of a “social-cultural nature,” the TV report said, and also featured meetings with organizations that deal with the Iraqi Jewish heritage. The goal, the report added, was “to build the infrastructure for future ties” between Iraq and Israel, with these delegates going back to Iraq as “kinds of future ambassadors” for Israel there.
The report did not identify any members of the Iraqi delegations, nor did it specify with which Israeli officials they had held talks. It said the most recent of the visits was last month.
Iraq has been in a formal state of war with Israel throughout the modern history of the state, and its forces participated in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel. In 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the nuclear reactor Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein had been building at Osirak. A decade later, in the first Gulf War, Saddam fired over 40 Scud missiles into Israel.
Nonetheless, the TV report asserted, amid overall regional hostility to the Jewish state, the Iraqi populace is “relatively supportive” of Israel, and this was a factor that helped enable the recent visits.
Last May, Israel’s Foreign Ministry launched a Facebook page uniquely dedicated to fostering ties with Iraq. Diplomats in Jerusalem said the Arabic-language page would serve as “some sort of digital embassy” to the war-torn country.
Israel had in recent months stepped up efforts to reach out to the country, arguing that Iraqis were interested in establishing ties with the Jewish state.
A month later, Iraq’s representative at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant — whose Instagram photo last year with her Israeli counterpart forced her family to flee the Middle Eastern country — visited Israel and reunited with Miss Israel.
Iraqi-born Sarah Idan lives in the United States, but her family was forced to relocate from the Arab country after the photo of her with Israel’s Adar Gandelsman went viral last year.
Iraq’s Jewish community is the oldest outside Israel, dating back to the prophet Abraham, who lived in Ur in southern Iraq. In 1950-52, some 120-130,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel, leaving a community of some 10,000. Today, it is believed that number has dwindled to no more than a handful.