How Iraq is managing the Israel-Gaza crisis

A shopping mall is illuminated with the Palestinian flag in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, in Baghdad, Iraq October 7, 2023.
A shopping mall is illuminated with the Palestinian flag in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, in Baghdad, Iraq October 7, 2023. (REUTERS/Ahmed Saad)
Editor's note:

This piece is part of the Center for Middle East Policy’s Israel-Gaza interviews series, in which leading experts unpack the conflict via in-depth Q&As.

Iraqis respond to the crisis

How would you characterize how Iraqis are responding to the crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip? What role has support for the Palestinian cause traditionally held in Iraqi political life?

Across ethnic and religious lines, Iraqis are appalled by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the violence against civilians, especially children, resulting in a death toll that has rivaled some of the worst months of violence Iraqis have experienced in the last two decades. Perhaps due to this familiarity with war and occupation, Iraqis empathize with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Speaking more broadly, Iraqi political, religious, and civil society leaders have consistently been supportive of the Palestinian cause for statehood and sovereignty, which is not the same as support for Hamas. Official statements from Iraq have neither condemned nor condoned Hamas specifically and have only mentioned the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause. Moreover, the events of October 7 have largely been forgotten in Iraq due to the events in Gaza that followed.

Despite regime change in 2003, Iraq’s political stance on Israel has never changed. Iraq does not diplomatically recognize Israel and has participated in the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars against it. In fact, Iraq is the only country that emerged from the 1948 war without having agreed to a cease-fire with Israel. Today, some mistakenly believe Iraq’s posture is caused by its relationship with Iran, but this is an issue of alignment between Iraq and Iran, not of coercion. While Iran, under a different regime, had a relationship with Israel, Iraq has never had ties with it.

Although the Arab countries have been cold toward the Shia Arab ruling class in Baghdad since 2003, this has not impacted the Iraqi government’s position on Palestine. In fact, this has been a remarkably cross-sectarian issue in the region, galvanizing support and sympathy from many sides.

Iraq’s most senior Shia religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who guides millions of devoted followers within and outside of the country, has consistently repeated calls for justice for Palestinians. When he met with Pope Francis in March 2021, Palestine was the only international political topic he raised. He expressed his concerns about the condition of the Palestinians in previous statements prior to this meeting.

Palestine and Iraq's political factions

Could you describe the present landscape of Iraqi politics, and how the major political factions have responded to the war between Israel and Hamas?

The Iraqi government has officially stated its support for the Palestinian cause, called for the United States to do more to prevent Israeli violence, and has held many summits at various levels to address the war in Gaza. The Iraqi prime minister and president have attended regional summits in Cairo and Riyadh as well. Iraq’s governments tend to be coalition governments (much like in Israel), which means that the opposition to the government usually exists outside of the halls of Parliament.

The strongest opposition and potential spoiler for the current Iraqi government is Muqtada Al-Sadr, the clerical leader of the Sadrist Movement who has vacillated between participating in the government and protesting it. Despite winning the largest number of seats in the most recent federal election, he forced his members of parliament (MPs) to resign and withdrew from politics in June 2022, after failing to form a non-coalition government. Sadr, however, is also strongly supportive of the Palestinian cause. It was his followers (among others) that protested for Palestine in late October 2023, with numbers reaching half a million protesters in central Baghdad. Previously, it was Sadr’s MPs that pushed an anti-normalization law in 2022, which punished any interaction with Israel or Israeli representatives. This was in reaction to the fears of the Abraham Accords expanding in the region and builds on existing legislation. Although it was passed easily by Parliament, it was meant to cement Iraq’s national position and to dismiss rumors and fears that the speaker of the parliament, Mohammed Al-Halbousi, harbored long-term visions of normalization with Israel. Halbousi has since been dismissed from his position and barred from public office, after having committed forgery.

The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been officially silent on the matter. KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani mentioned that Iraq should be preoccupied with its own internal affairs in a discussion that took place at a conference in Duhok, Iraq. Having less freedom of speech than the rest of Iraq, it is not clear how much that sentiment holds with the Kurdish public. In addition, the KRG had sold oil to Israel in the past, though this was halted in March 2023, when an international arbitration court in Paris ruled in Baghdad’s favor, stating that Ankara had violated a joint agreement with Iraq by allowing the KRG to export crude oil through a pipeline to Turkey’s Ceyhan port. Oil sales from Iraq’s Kurdistan region remain halted to this day.

Risks of escalation between the United States and Iran-backed groups

Iraq has seen fighting occur within its borders, with militia attacks against U.S. military personnel followed by U.S. airstrikes reportedly killing members of Kataeb Hezbollah in response. What dangers do you see for the further escalation of violence between the United States and Iran-backed groups in Iraq?

The Iraqi government has had to deal with the presence of armed groups who see themselves as part of the “Axis of Resistance” that spans the Middle East and is spearheaded by Iran. These factions do not only support the Palestinian cause but are actively opposed to Israel and sympathetic to Hamas. They were even praised by Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah in his speech after the events of October 7, alongside the Houthis. These factions represent an extreme and should not be synonymized with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a union of disparate paramilitaries united in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) after Sistani issued a fatwa enjoining Iraqis to enlist with security forces and participate in the war. Some of these PMF groups were created in response to the fatwa, though many powerful ones — including those associated with the Sadrists and with the Badr Organization — had already been operative. Some groups were better able to integrate into the Iraqi Security Forces over time, whereas others — notably the resistance factions — have been unpredictable and difficult to control.

These resistance factions have launched rocket and drone attacks on the U.S. military presence in Iraq years before the events in Gaza, even though the United States has been in Iraq at the Iraqi government’s invitation since 2014. There was a pause in attacks on the U.S. and coalition presence with the formation of the Mohammed Shia al-Sudani government in October 2022, but that has been undone with the conflict in Gaza. Since then, they have launched attacks against the Ain al-Asad base in Anbar, the coalition base near Erbil International Airport, and more recently they targeted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, though it had largely been evacuated by then. Despite the condemnation of the prime minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry, the Iraqi government has been unable to rein in these actors.

The United States has responded to these attacks, with a number of Iraqi militiamen killed in the process. If this tit-for-tat escalation continues, it could jeopardize the international coalition’s mission of countering ISIS in Iraq going forward. ISIS is territorially defeated but it is unclear what could develop if the United States, who leads the coalition, leaves Iraq. Although Washington has tried to delegate more responsibility to its partners, the coalition is heavily dependent on the United States.

The only side that has suffered casualties from this back-and-forth has been Iraqis, which makes one question the motivations of these paramilitaries. Moreover, if the Iraqi government is incapable of preventing them from attacking the U.S. military presence and incapable of persuading the United States to not respond, then is the current security arrangement with the United States more harmful than it is helpful? Regardless of how the Iraqi and U.S. governments decide to proceed, this recent crisis has revealed the interconnectedness of Middle Eastern security.

Public opinion, however, does play a role in shaping behavior in the Middle East, particularly in more democratic states like Iraq and Lebanon. Iraqis value their sovereignty and have little patience for foreign intervention whether from Iran or the United States. They also have no interest in being relegated back to a pariah state and will consistently protest and attempt to vote out any politicians that risk the country’s stability and position in the international community.

Iraq amid pressure from Iran and the United States

Since entering office in October 2022, al-Sudani has managed a fragile stability by balancing the Iraqi-U.S. relationship with the demands of Iranian-backed parties in his coalition. What pressures is his government now feeling from the United States and Iran, given their support for opposing sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict, and how has it dealt with these pressures?

Iraq has always had to balance its relationship between the United States and Iran; this is not new for Iraqi leaders. Baghdad’s relationship with Washington has clear contours, particularly concerning Iraq’s position on Israel, which has been clear from the beginning. Iraq has consistently supported the Palestinian cause and its position on this current conflict is not shaped by Iran’s support for Hamas, which is separate from support for Palestine. Therefore, Iraq will not be pushed toward Iran because of this conflict, but it may still be pushed away from the United States as the Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues with unequivocal U.S. support.

Another alarming trend, from the U.S. perspective, is that the once pro-American and pro-democracy civil society forces in Iraq have grown disenchanted with the United States and its purported ideals. These activists have stood at the frontlines and protected Iraq’s democratic institutions from erosion and attack at significant personal risk. Today, many of these activists are questioning the sincerity of the U.S. and the Western commitment to democracy and human rights, given the blatant disregard for civilian lives in Gaza. This will have consequences for decades to come as it is these civil society elites that shape Iraq’s public political discourse. This has taken place in other Middle Eastern states as well, though the stakes are highest in Iraq and Lebanon, which are the only states that have democratic institutions, flawed though they may be.

Iraq's balanced foreign policy

In Iraqi foreign policy more broadly, al-Sudani’s government has navigated a relatively neutral path between its regional neighbors and major global powers over the last year and has continued to build ties with Arab countries in the region. Do you see this approach as likely to continue, and has the current conflict introduced any complications to it?

This approach to a balanced foreign policy and an outreach to Arab states is not a new one in Iraq, and it builds on the work of previous prime ministers (both those with close ties to the United States and those who were closer to Iran). This is a sign that Iraq’s institutions are maturing and that it has a foreign policy mission that transcends partisan lines. This should continue after the tenure of al-Sudani’s premiership.