Analysis

The Man Dreaming of an Israel-Iraq Peace Deal

Iraqi politician Mithal al-Alusi hasn’t even been dissuaded by an assassination attempt that killed his sons to drop his advocacy for ties with Israel, but Iraq doesn’t look like it will be following the UAE’s lead

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A woman waves an Iraqi flag during a protest in Tahrir Square, Baghdad.
A woman waves an Iraqi flag during a protest in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, Feb. 13, 2020. Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Iraqi politician Mithal al-Alusi has visited Israel at least twice openly and officially. The first time was in 2004, when he was a member of an investigative panel tasked with locating and investigating the activities of officials of the former ruling Baath Party under deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. On his second visit, in 2008, he took part in a terrorism conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Following the first trip, Alusi was dismissed from the investigative committee and was the target of several assassination attempts. In one attempt to kill him in 2005, his two sons, Ayman and Jamal, died when unknown gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on his car. But Alusi remained undeterred. As a member of parliament, he met Israelis numerous times at conferences and events in Israel and elsewhere and held meetings with senior Israelis.

Following his 2008 visit to Israel, he was dismissed as a member of parliament and accused of high treason. Alusi appealed his expulsion from parliament and the decision was overturned.

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Alusi remained unshaken in his belief that Iraq should forge diplomatic ties with Israel. “Iraq needs to get out of the camp of wars, extremism and delusions and needs to build stable relations with all of countries of the world,” he said last week in a newspaper interview following the announcement of the United Arab Emirates’ agreement to normalize relations with Israel.

Iraq, he said, needs a peace agreement with Israel, like the one that is to be signed with the UAE. “There are informal ties between a few Iraqi politicians and Israel but Iranian control of the political arena in Iraq precludes further developments in this field,” he said.

As expected, Alusi’s remarks prompted harsh criticism from politicians in Iraq, particularly among those who are pro-Iranian, while Iraqi media outlets made do with reporting the remarks and relating to his stance as a curiosity that should not be taken seriously.

These developments are coming at a time when Iraq is pursuing a strategic dialogue with the U.S. administration and after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former journalist and head of intelligence until his recent appointment as premier, was received last week with great fanfare at the White House. But public discussion of ties between Israel and Iraq raises fears and suspicion that Iraq is “going to fall into the trap set by the U.S. administration,” in the words of one commentator.

Iraq is mainly of strategic importance to American foreign policy because it is perceived as the most important proxy of Iran in the Middle East – more so than Syria or Lebanon. But the huge amount of oil that Iraq has and the billions of dollars the United States has invested in wars in Iraq have not turned it into a country that can stand on its own two feet.

Its debt to foreign financial institutions has skyrocketed to more than $104 billion – $5 billion of which it owes Iran. Electricity and gas supplied to large parts of Iraq are dependent upon Iranian sources. Trade with Iran is estimated at more than $12 billion, and some of the ruling Iraqi parties are close to the Iranian regime and serve as Tehran’s proxies in Baghdad. And that’s in addition to Shi’ite militias in Iraq that receive Iranian financial backing, along with the funding they receive from the Iraqi government.

Iraq has been given partial exemption from American sanctions on Iran, out of recognition of Iraq’s dependence on Iran and out of a desire to head off Iraq’s total collapse. Despite U.S. sanctions on Iran, it is clear to Washington that as long as such close trade, economic and diplomatic ties exist between Iraq and Iran, the desire to build a hermetic sanctions wall around Iran cannot become a reality.

For its part, Iraq also understands that without American support and assistance, it cannot rehabilitate its economy and become politically stable. The public protests, including violent demonstrations that broke out in Iraq at the beginning of the year and toppled the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, have still not died down. Criticism of Iran’s involvement in Iraq is a constant theme of the demonstrations and a topic of discussion on social media.

On the other hand, the Iraqi government is bound by a decision of the reconstituted parliament in January of this year – following the assassination in Iraq of the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani – to remove all foreign forces from Iraq. That would mean the withdrawal of some 5,200 American troops from Iraqi bases.

U.S. Maj. Gen. Kenneth P. Ekman signs documents with Brig. Gen. Salah Abdullah during a handover of Taji military base.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Kenneth P. Ekman signs documents with Brig. Gen. Salah Abdullah during a handover of Taji military base north of Baghdad to Iraqi security forces, Aug. 23, 2020.Credit: Thailer al-Sudan/Reuters

At Wednesday’s meeting at the White House between Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi and President Donald Trump, both men made it publicly clear that the United States is obligated to remove its troops from Iraq. No timetable has been set, however, and it is unclear whether American advisers would remain in Iraq following a withdrawal to continue to train the Iraqi army.

Of no less importance is the signing of agreements worth an estimated $8 billion between Iraq and U.S. energy corporations to develop and rehabilitate Iraqi oil fields and for power plants that will free Iraq from dependence on Iran. Washington is also promoting energy cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and is trying to enlist financial assistance for Iraq from the other Gulf countries, including the UAE, as part of its strategy to disengage Iraq from Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi with President Trump at the White House.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi with President Trump at the White House, Aug. 20, 2020.Credit: Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Reuters

But this American strategy is unlikely to achieve its goals, considering the political structure of the Iraqi regime, the makeup of its population and the length of time and the inestimable amount of money that would be required to make Iraq economically independent. In addition, Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s government is expected to hold elections in June 2021, around the time of presidential elections in Iran, and there is no certainty that Al-Kadhimi will remain in office following the Iraqi election.

So at the moment, the “American trap” that Iran and its allies in Iraq are afraid of, out of concern that it might bring about peace between Iraq and Israel, appears to be more of a scarecrow than a real threat.

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