As the world watched the US Marines pull down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, on April 9, 2003, and as Iraqis defaced every Saddam poster or mural around the country, other Iraqis did one more thing that went uncovered. Hundreds stormed the Palestinian neighborhood in Baghdad and threw rocks on its residents, forcing them to flee. All the Palestinians in Iraq, numbering five thousand, relocated to Treybeel, on the Iraqi border with Jordan, where the UN constructed a makeshift refugee camp. The UN eventually resettled those Palestinians around the world. Today, there is barely any Palestinian who lives anywhere in Iraq. Palestinians are simply not welcome among Iraqis.
When Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to invade Kuwait in 1990, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stood next to the Iraqi tyrant as both men paraded the army that had just decimated a fellow Arab country. The more Saddam found himself isolated because of invading Kuwait, the more he leaned on the “Palestinian Cause” and Arafat, who had himself become irrelevant and living in Tunisia but was enjoying the largesse of oil-rich Iraq.
Until 1990, Saddam had sponsored Arafat’s rivals, including the most notorious global terrorists such as Abu-Nidal, who ordered the assassination of Israel’s ambassador in London, which precipitated the 1982 Lebanon War. Another Palestinian terrorist Saddam hosted was Abul-Abbas, whose claim to fame included recruiting Samir Kuntar, who killed a family in northern Israel and was serving a life in prison until Hezbollah freed him in a prisoner swap that had ignited the 2006 Lebanon War. But by 1990, Saddam was not seeking mercenaries, only legitimacy that he found in Arafat.
When America launched Operation Desert Storm that ejected Saddam’s troops from Kuwait, the Iraqi dictator calculated that he could lineup the Arabs behind him by throwing 39 Skud missiles on Israel. He threw a dozen on Saudi Arabia too. The Arabs — including radicals like Syria’s Assad and Libya’s Qadhafi — never took Saddam’s side. Only Palestinians took to the streets and cheered for Saddam, shouting “Oh Saddam our love, hit Tel Aviv” (it rhymes in Arabic).
Saddam’s love story with the Palestinians continued throughout the 1990s, but unhappy with Arafat’s peace with Israel, Saddam started sponsoring Hamas, whose campaign of suicide bombings, throughout the 1990s, aborted peace and resulted in the Second Intifada in 2000. To every family of a Palestinian “martyr,” Saddam offered 5,000 Euros.
After invading Kuwait in 1990, the UN imposed an embargo on Iraq, which emptied Saddam’s coffers. Saddam still paid enormous sums to Palestinians while Iraqis were suffering a famine. Inside Iraq, Palestinians and their families were Saddam’s most notorious mercenary intelligence operatives, and enjoyed Saddam’s generosity while Iraqis lived in poverty.
When America toppled Saddam, Iraqis brought down Saddam’s statues and ejected his Palestinians. General Iraqi hatred toward Palestine, especially among the Shia who traditionally view Palestine as a Sunni issue, remained high way after Saddam. When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress in 2006, during the Israeli war with Hezbollah, he took Hezbollah’s side, causing an uproar among Iraqis on forums (the predecessors of social media). When Maliki tried to offer money to Gazans, Iraqi commentators went ballistic on him. To the majority of Iraqis, Palestine meant Saddam and Saddam meant the devil.
When Iraqis think of Islam, they think of their capital Baghdad, the Jewel of the Abbasid Caliphate, which was was the apex of the Muslim civilization when Muslims were leading the world in knowledge, science, literature and economics. When Iraqis think of Islam, or Arabism, they rarely think of Jerusalem, and hence, Palestine rarely meant much to their Muslim or Arab identity.
Baghdad, as the capital of Arabism and Islam, is exactly what Iran’s rulers traditionally hate. Abbasid Baghdad represented the end of the last Persian empire of the Sassanids. Hence, Jerusalem is something that the Iranians have an interest in exploiting, but that means little to Iraqis.
By using the carrot and the stick strategy with Iraqis — rewarding loyalists with cash and government positions while assassinating opponents — Iran slowly asserted its control over Iraq. As it did so, “liberating Jerusalem” posters started featuring prominently around Iraq.
But Iraqis, including the most ardent supporters of Iran like Qais Al-Khazaali, have been unable to articulate convincing arguments against Iraqi peace with Israel. Khazaali once said that peace with Israel will allow Zionism to bring homosexuality to Iraq.
On Friday, 300 Iraqis — Sunni and Shia — held a conference in the predominantly Kurdish city of Erbil in the north. They called for peace with Israel. The next day, hell broke loose as Iranian militias started threatening with violence those who attended the conference, forcing them to walk back their pro-peace position and statements.
America lost 4,000 lives and spent hundreds of billions of dollars to allow democracy to replace tyranny in Iraq. It is unfortunate that Saddam left but tyranny stayed.
While the Iraqi government should have insisted that every Iraqi is free to express their opinion, even opinions that disagree with the official policy of not signing peace with Israel, the government instead prosecuted those who attended the conference and promised to arrest them, without citing any clear violation of Iraqi laws (because there was none).
It is sad that after all the blood and treasure wasted, the rulers of Iraq still cannot fathom the meaning of freedom of expression, let alone protect it. It is especially sad that anyone who knows Iraq and Iraqis knows that they do not give a hoot about Palestine and the Palestinians, and yet they are forced to voice hatred toward the Jewish State, under threat of violence from the Iran regime and its Iraqi allies.
America should talk to the Iraqi government to drop charges and protect similar peace conferences, if not for the sake of peace, at least for the sake of ensuring that freedom of expression remains sacrosanct.