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Iraqis Mull Support for Palestinians

Some say Iraqi government has not done enough to aid Gaza residents.
Iraqis throughout the country believe their government should have taken a stronger stance against the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, but are torn over how much support Iraq should offer Palestinians.

Citizens informally polled by IWPR-trained reporters in Mosul, Karbala, Baghdad and Sulaimainiyah largely expressed sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza and said they were following the Israeli-Hamas conflict closely on Arab, Iraqi and Palestinian news channels.

Israel and Hamas separately declared cease-fires on January 18, establishing a fragile, short-term truce which many hoped would ultimately end three weeks of war.

As Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza, news agencies estimated that 1,260 Palestinians had been killed, more than half of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis were killed by rocket fire from Gaza.

The strength of the Israeli offensive and the plight of Palestinian civilians have been widely broadcast throughout the Arab world.

Under former leader Saddam Hussein, Iraq had been one of the Palestinians’ staunchest supporters.

Some here say Iraq responded to the recent crisis with stern words but limited action. Others argued that Iraq, facing its own crises, was in no position to help Gazans.

Iraqi leaders were among those who condemned Israel following the siege of Gaza. Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, who represented Iraq at an emergency summit of Arab leaders in Qatar on January 16, urged pressure on Israel to stop its Gaza operations during a meeting with incoming United States vice-president Joe Biden last week.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called the Israeli strikes in Gaza a “brutal crime” and told reporters that Arab countries should cut diplomatic ties with Israel.

But citizens say they wanted to see more from their leaders.

“The people of Gaza are Muslims and they are our brothers in religion and homeland,” said Ghassan Hasan, a 44-year-old taxi driver from Mosul, reflecting a widely held view.

“The Iraqi government needs to take more action, such as using its current relations with the American administration to put pressure on Israel to stop the Zionist aggression.”

The Israeli-Hamas war – by far the deadliest since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – put Baghdad in a unique position given its relatively new relationship with Washington.

Most leaders refrained from calling for violence against Israel or condemning the US – as Saddam Hussein had done. Anti-US Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was one of the exceptions, encouraging Iraqis “to carry out revenge operations” against US forces.

Colonel Scott Maw, a spokesman for coalition forces n Iraq, said the military had been on heightened alert for potential attacks over the past several weeks but it had not seen an actual rise in attacks.

He said the perceived threat of an attack was higher because of several developments, including Sadr’s statement, anger over Gaza, the upcoming provincial council elections and the newly-implemented US-Iraqi security pact.

Many Iraqis interviewed by IWPR said they wanted to see Baghdad provide aid to the Palestinians.

Iraq said it would send a plane of assistance and supplies, but there is a sense of disappointment with Baghdad’s commitments.

Speaking for many, Mohammed Al-Sadi, a 25-year-old in Karbala, called Iraq’s reaction to the Israeli strike on Gaza weak.

“In spite of Iraq’s unstable situation at present, Iraq has always been a rich country which provides other countries with support, and that’s exactly what should have happened in the case of Gaza,” he said.

Palestinians hailed Saddam as a champion of their cause after he launched 39 Scud missiles into Israel in 1991 and donated 10,000 dollars to Palestinian families of “martyrs” killed by Israeli soldiers.

This time, peaceful protests opposing the Israeli incursion into Gaza, largely organised by Islamic parties, were held throughout Iraq, including in Karbala, which was at the heart of the bloody Shia revolt to overthrow Saddam in 1991, and in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. In Mosul, a primarily Sunni Arab city, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a protest against the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza on December 28.

But not all Iraqis advocated more support for the Palestinians. Some argued that Iraq’s own security, reconstruction and medical needs should take priority. Other said they were angry with Palestinian groups such as Hamas because of their support for extremist violence in Iraq.

“Iraq itself is suffering from complex issues and difficulties that warrant support and attention from the government,” said Haitham Kadhim, a 40-year-old chemistry teacher in Baghdad. “Iraq should not put efforts into [Gaza] when their people dance with joy at every terrorist explosion in a market in Baghdad.”

“The Palestine problem is not ours … It will not have any affect on Iraq,” said Sardar Ismael, a 19-year-old bookseller in Sulaimaniyah.

“Iraq cannot support [Palestinians] in the current situation, and they are not supposed to support them. This is a problem for western and powerful countries, not an occupied country like Iraq, which already has enough to deal with.”

This report was produced with contributions from IWPR-trainees Emad al-Shara in Karbala, Hazim al-Shara in Baghdad, Azeez Mahmud in Sulaimaniyah and a reporter in Mosul, who preferred not to be named. Iraq editor Tiare Rath contributed to this report from New York.

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