US military official distances himself from Iraq event urging ties with Israel

Spokesman for US-led coalition against Islamic State says he had no knowledge of confab promoting normalization and has no affiliation with its participants

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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)

NEW YORK — A spokesman for the US-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State on Sunday distanced himself from a recent event in Iraq where some 300 prominent local officials issued statements backing normalization with Israel.

“[The International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve] has just been made aware of announcements by both the GoI & the KRG relating to the recent conference held in Erbil to discuss the normalization of ties with Israel. [The Global Coalition] had no prior knowledge of the event, nor do we have any affiliation with its participants,” tweeted Col. Wayne Marotto.

“[The Coalition] remains committed to supporting the [government of Iraq’s] enduring defeat daesh mission through advising, assisting and enabling the [Iraqi Security Forces’s] at the operational level,” he added, referring to the Islamic State.

The tweets were the first public comment by a US official regarding Friday’s meeting and appeared to be an attempt to assuage anger in the Iraqi government, which quickly condemned the Erbil confab as not representative of Baghdad’s views on the matter.

The Iraqi government is a key ally of the coalition to defeat IS.

The Biden administration has been accused by Republicans of not building off the progress initiated by the Trump administration, which brokered normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries.

The White House has insisted that strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords are indeed a priority, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted an event earlier this month marking the one-year anniversary of the normalization agreements’ signing with counterparts from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a query as to whether Marotto’s statement represented the official view of the Biden administration on the Erbil event.

At Friday’s conference in the Kurdistan region, over 300 Iraqi participants called on their country’s leaders to end the state of war with Israel and join the Abraham Accords.

The gathering included Sunni and Shiite Muslim tribal leaders, social activists and former military commanders, and was organized by the Center for Peace Communications, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to advance closer ties between Israelis and the Arab world.

Friday’s conference ignited a media firestorm in Iraq. President Barham Salih denounced the conference as “illegal” and accused the attendees of seeking to stir up unrest.

Iraqi authorities announced on Sunday that they had issued warrants for the arrest of two citizens who addressed the conference, adding that they would arrest all 300-plus participants once they establish their identities.

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 also distanced itself from the event following the controversy, pleading for other Iraqi factions to deal with the matter “more calmly.”

Aaron Boxerman and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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