A Pro-Israel Summit in Erbil Breaks New Ground

September 30, 2021

By Dennis Ross

At great personal risk, Iraqi civil society leaders gather to demand entry into the Abraham Accords.

On Sept. 24, a remarkable event took place in Iraq. In the northern city of Erbil, 312 Iraqis gathered—predominantly Sunnis but also Shiites, from cities and towns across the country—to issue a demand for their country to enter into relations with Israel and its people via the Abraham Accords, and they did this while risking the wrath of Iran and its military proxies.

The participants were religious leaders, youth protesters, and college professors. One of the leaders of the conference was Sunni Sheikh Wisam al-Hardan. His Sahwa (Awakening) movement is made up of Sunni tribesmen who, with the backing of U.S. forces, faced down the Islamic States and al Qaeda on the battlefield. It was this history to which the sheikh referred when he said at the conference, “We have demonstrated over the years of blood and tears that we oppose extremists of all varieties, whether Sunni ‘jihadists’ or Iran-backed Shiite militias.”

“We have also demonstrated our patriotism,” Hardan continued. “We sacrificed lives for the sake of a unified Iraq and our shared aspiration to realize a federal system of government as stipulated in our nation’s constitution.” He now seeks to promote an Iraq that builds coexistence domestically and regionally. For those at the conference, that requires reaching out to Israelis whose families originally came from Iraq.

On the eve of World War II, Jews made up about one-third of Baghdad’s population and were leaders in science, finance, and culture. In reconnecting with the Jews who were forced to leave Iraq at the time of Israel’s founding, Hardan, Maj. Gen. Amer al-Juburi (a prominent member of the Shiite wing of the Juburi clan), the culture official Sahar Karim al-Tai, and the other participants proclaimed their hope, as Tai said in her speech, of “laying the cornerstone for the future of a new Iraq—one where people of all sects, faiths, and creeds will enjoy the blessings of justice and equality.” They see peace and the Abraham Accords—the declared policy of the Biden administration in the United States—as creating a pathway for the future they want to build.

Conference participants are now being subjected to blowback, ranging from suspension of Hardan from the Awakening movement to more direct threats from Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Those militias are calling for harsh actions against “Zionist-American dens” and the “treasonous” participants in Erbil. Politicians not wanting to be on the wrong side of the Iranians are supporting arrests. The Iranians and their proxies are producing coerced retractions in which some of the participants are forced to admit their supposed mistakes.

As important as it was for the conferencegoers to make a statement about peace with Israel, they were also pushing forward the cause of freedom of expression for all Iraqis. They accept that others may disagree with them, but if Iraq is to progress, diverse opinions must be allowed to be expressed. The calls for arresting the participants are a chilling reminder of the limits of expression in Iraq—again, a sign of the leverage Iran continues to exert, but also an indication that Iran fears the message of the Erbil conference. Nothing could be more threatening to everything that Iran seeks in Iraq and the region than the expansion of peace, especially if it is coming from the ground-up.

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