More than 300 Iraqi Sunni tribal members, Shiite leaders, and a few Arab and foreign officials – including Israelis – gathered in Erbil, the provincial capital of Iraqi Kurdistan region, on September 24. Vaguely billed as the “Peace and Recovery” conference, to the surprise of many, the event specifically called for the normalization of relations between Iraq and Israel, sending shockwaves throughout Iraq.

The Organizers

The conference in Erbil was organized by the Center for Peace Communications (CPC), a US-based nonprofit organization, which claims that it aims at resolving “identity-based conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.” The CPC is presided by Joseph Braude, an expert on Middle Eastern politics, who worked for years in the UAE for an Emirati-funded think tank. The very name of Braude raises a lot of suspicion in Iraq because of his heinous past.

In 2004, Braude pleaded guilty in a New York court to “smuggling and making false statements” after being caught bringing into the US “4,000-year-old artifacts stolen from Iraq’s national museum.” Al Jazeera reported at the time that “hiding the ancient objects in a suitcase, Bruade [revealed to the judge] that he had even told customs officials he had never traveled to Iraq in an attempt to stop them [from] searching his bags.” He was sentenced to six  months under house arrest and two years of probation.

On the Iraqi side, the main interlocutor was Wissam Al-Hardan, head of a tribe in the western Anbar province of Iraq.

On the Iraqi side, the main interlocutor was Wissam Al-Hardan, head of a tribe in the western Anbar province of Iraq. Al-Hardan was recruited by US forces to fight “terrorism” during the occupation of Iraq. Later he was promoted and became the head of the Awakening Sons of Iraq, widely known in the country as Al-Sahwa — a coalition serving as an auxiliary police force. He, like many of his colleagues, is not known to have any formal education and was handpicked for the post of Al-Sahwa by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. The latter himself was handpicked for the PM post by the US State Department. In his book, titled “The Envoy,” former US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, explains in detail how he chose Al-Maliki for the role in 2006.

From the Israeli side, the names of the participants were shrouded in secrecy. Yet, it was revealed that Chemi Peres, the son of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, delivered a virtual speech, in his capacity as head of an Israeli NGO. Other attendees spoke virtually during the meeting as well, including former UAE official Ali Al-Naimi.

Conference Objectives

In an opening statement for the conference, read in Arabic and widely circulated, Wissam Al-Hardan demanded that Iraq “join the Abraham Accords” and establish full diplomatic relations with Israel like other Arab countries which signed the Accords over the last year. Al-Hardan later published an Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, praising the UAE and again stressing the principle goal of the conference: to encourage Iraq to normalize ties with Israel.

He said that his next step would be to “seek face-to-face talks with the Israelis.” Interestingly, Martin Indyk, the former US envoy to the Middle East, applauded Al-Hardan’s article for the Wall Street Journal in a tweet, describing it as a “courageous” move. Indyk, is a Board Director in the CPC. It is not clear, however, how a revered US veteran diplomat like him would work with a center whose President is an ex-convict.

Iraq Israel normalization

Attendees listen to Sahar Al-Taie, who works for Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, at the Peace and Recovery conference organized by US think-tank Center for Peace Communications in Erbil, Sept. 24, 2021. (Safin Hamed/AFP)

Another notable participant is Sahar Al-Taie, who works for the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad. During the conference, she stated that “Israel is a powerful country” and that “Iraq must not neglect this fact; it must not live in seclusion from the world.”

“Iraq today must change its policy for the sake of peace in the region. It has become imperative to recognize Israel as a friendly country, especially since about half a million Israelis are of Iraqi origins,” Al-Taie further asserted. “Their eyes are still turned towards Iraq,” she added, and declared that “we [Iraqis] want peace with Israel.” Moreover, Al-Taie told the Times of Israel that she considers the UAE a “model,” which has taken the “bold decision” to normalize relations with Israel. She made no mention of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and its gross human rights violations against the Palestinians, even though many Iraqis are proud of having fought three wars against Israeli occupation.

“Iraq today must change its policy for the sake of peace in the region. It has become imperative to recognize Israel as a friendly country . . . “

The Iraqi Ministry of Culture later published a statement condemning the meeting. It stressed that Al-Taie participated in the conference in her personal capacity and that she does not represent the position of the Ministry. However, the head of the Ministry – known to belong to a pro-Iranian militia, Asa’ieb Ahl Ahl Alhaq, or the League of the Righteous – did not take any administrative punishment against Al-Taie.

Many important Iraqi tribal leaders left the meeting once they discovered that the real purpose of the conference was dedicated to the normalization of relations between Iraq and Israel. They indicated in a statement that they were “duped into attending,” and that they were “surprised” by its contents. They stressed that they have nothing to do with “issue of diplomacy with Israel” and that they are against normalization.

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Official Reactions

Following an outburst of popular disapproval of the Erbil conference, the Iraqi government issued a statement condemning the event and dismissed it as an “illegal meeting.” It was later joined by a similar denunciation from Iraq’s President Barham Saleh.

Prompted by angry backlash and threats to punish the officials who attended the Erbil conference –especially those denounced by the powerful Shiite clerk, Muqtada Al-Sadar – the Iraqi judiciary announced it has “issued arrest warrants for three people” who participated in the meeting. The three are Wissam Al-Hardan, ex-MP Mithal Al-Alussi – a self-declared supporter of Israel – and Sahar Al-Taie of the Ministry of Culture.

The Kurdish regional government (KRG) rushed to distance itself from the conference.

The Kurdish regional government (KRG), on its part, rushed to distance itself from the conference, pledging that it “will take necessary measures” in response. The administration claimed it was not aware of the gathering, and that it “was held without government approval,” according to a KRG spokesperson’s statement. The spokesman insisted that “the views of the conference do not reflect the views and policies of the KRG,” and that the local government will investigate “how this meeting was held.”

Fearing further popular outrage, Al-Hardan himself was reported to have disavowed his stated position on normalizations. In comments distributed in Erbil and on social media, he said: “I read the final statement of the conference that was [sent] to me without knowing its content, but I was surprised by the involvement of the Zionist entity and normalization process included in the statement.” Curiously, Al-Hardan neglected to mention who transmitted the statement to him. His retraction also follows remarks by one of the Iraq militias, which threatened that “his calls for normalization would be punished if repeated.”

Amid the unfavorable reactions to the conference, the only formal support came from Israeli officials. Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister of Israel, welcomed the Erbil meeting in a tweet, claiming that “it comes from below and not from above, from the people and not from the government.”

What is Next?

Contrary to what Naftali Bennett maintained in his tweet, the Erbil conference proved that the normalization calls did not come from “below,” because the majority of the Iraqis are against it. Yet, this normalization may not be ruled out given the weak government in Baghdad and the spread of corruption among many of its senior officials.

Indeed, if the Iraq-Israel normalization is to happen, it will definitely come from “above,” as was the case in many Arab countries. It could also be a recipe for more protests, social unrest, and government isolation.