Before Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr announced his June withdrawal from Iraq’s stagnant political process which swept Baghdad into its ensuing chaos, he insisted on passing a law banning normalization with Israel.
Sadr’s numerous speeches, tweets, and personal statements on this hot issue make it appear as though his overriding priority in Iraq has been to stop attempts at normalization creeping into the country.
In May, members of the Iraqi parliament voted in favor of a proposed law to ban normalization with Israel, which carries a severe sentence that include life imprisonment and the death penalty.
Parliament unanimously passed the bill criminalizing “normalization and the establishment of relations with the Zionist entity,” during the session headed by Parliamentary Speaker Muhammad Al-Halbousi which included 275 attending MPs, who chanted anti-Israel slogans upon the bill’s passing.
Immediately afterward, Muqtada al-Sadr tweeted to the Iraqi people: “…Pray two rak’ahs (an addition to the daily Muslim prayer ritual) of thanks to God Almighty…and go out to the streets in celebration of this great achievement.”
An unprecedented law
Under this historic law, Iraq has become the first Arab country to establish an explicit law criminalizing dealing with or normalizing with Israel under the maximum penalty.
In a show of resistance rarely seen in Iraq’s fragmented political scene, the law rallied parliamentarians across most of the political spectrum to condemn Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people, at a time when neighboring Arab rulers have moved to embrace Tel Aviv.
This legal development also comes after two important events witnessed by Iraq:
The first was a conference sponsored by a New York group in Erbil last September in which some 300 tribal, activist, and academic figures called for normalization with Israel.
The second was the targeting of the alleged headquarters of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency in Erbil by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC).
While some took Sadr’s anti-Israel posture as mere political rhetoric, others took his statements more seriously. Clarifying his anti-Zionist stance in a tweet, the popular Shia cleric wrote: “We are not hostile to religions, but rather to extremism, terrorism and injustice,” adding: “We protect Christian and Jewish minorities, and you expel Arabs and Muslims.”
He concluded his tweet, thus: “We condemn the action of ISIS, and you support Western extremism.”
A Kurdish grey area
The unforgiving new legislation does not allow for any grey areas in Iraq and has politically hitched the Iraqi government to Palestinian causes, which very few regional states – bar Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and Algeria – have been prepared to do in recent years.
But domestically, the black-and-white law is likely to hit hurdles: Iraq’s Kurdistan region has long courted ties with Israel, a country that Kurdish separatists look to as an example of the ethnocentric state they desire.
Most interestingly, the Kurdish President of Iraq, Barham Salih refused to sign the law, leaving it to take its legal course without executive approval, which becomes effective 15 days after a successful parliamentary vote.
As part of efforts to deter the motion, a member of the State of Law coalition, Haider Al-Lami revealed that there had been pressure on Shia politicians to normalize relations with Israel, which prompted some of them to oppose prohibiting normalization.
But al-Lami said that, ultimately, “there are no peace treaties between Iraq and Israel, and the war is open between the two sides,” adding that “four years ago, Israel’s planes bombed Iraqi lands, and many scientists were assassinated by the Mossad and Israeli forces.”
Sadr singles out Salih
Following Salih’s refusal to sign the law, Sadr tweeted that it is “very, very shameful that the so-called President of the Republic of Iraq (Barham)… refuses to sign the law” criminalizing relations with Israel.
He added that it would be “shameful” for Iraqis to have a president who supports normalizing ties with Israel and is “unpatriotic and affiliated with the west or east.”
Some have interpreted Sadr’s comments to be a personal attack against Salih, especially since the latter is an ally of Kurdish politician Masoud Barzani, who is widely known to enjoy good relations with Israel. The Sadr movement leader’s motives are arguably an attempt to neutralize Salih from the presidential competition, cutting down political support for the Kurdish president’s second-term aspirations.
During the intervening three years since Iraq’s 2019 October Revolution, and based on his complex and often contradictory political interests, Salih has moved between the pro-Israel and the pro-Iran camps, exploiting the relations he has recently built with the leaders of the Coordination Framework, which includes Shia parties close to Iran.
Why did Salih refuse to sign?
Sources in various Iraqi political circles have told The Cradle that Salih’s refusal to sign the anti-normalization legislation is due to his personal and longstanding relations with the US’s pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC.
Salih was invested in this relationship before he contributed to the establishment of the American University in Sulaymaniyah, where he strived to provide workspaces for several associations operating under AIPAC and the university’s umbrella.
The issue doesn’t end here. The sources claim that Sadr singled out Salih not because of Iraq’s current political impasse, but rather as a result of information the Shia cleric has amassed on Salih’s extensive relations with AIPAC, and his relations with those who influence them.
They also report that Salih paid a secret visit to Washington some weeks ago, where he met with a number of high-profile AIPAC influencers. During these discussions, they pressed the Kurdish president on the form of Iraq’s next government and its position on the issue of normalization, particularly given the adoption of the anti-normalization law.
Salih is reported to have demanded political support from his AIPAC contacts to obtain a second term as Iraq’s president – in return for obstructing Baghdad and Sadr’s moves, which the US and Israel view as detrimental to their interests.
The sources say that Salih assured those he met with that he would work hard to control the wave of Iraq’s anti-normalization activities, and that he even held some sway over a number of current government and Coordination Framework officials that he could rally to their cause.
Iraq’s political stalemate
Unfortunately, these complex state of affairs do not end with Salih’s presidential ambitions. The Iraqi constitution requires that an elected president assign the largest parliamentary bloc to nominate a prime minister who forms the government. The Sadrists are the largest bloc to have emerged from the last elections, but do not see eye to eye with the influential Coordination Framework bloc of parties on the choice of prime minister.
Sadr, who has been absent from these ongoing negotiations, is keen on dissolving parliament and scheduling new elections to break the political impasse, whereas the Coordination Framework prefers to establish a transitional government prior to new polls.
While the legislation criminalizing normalization with Israel may stem from genuine support for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel, it would be naive to disregard partisan motives on Sadr’s part, especially in the timing of his anti-normalization successes.