ARBIL: Iraqis attend a conference organized by US think-tank Center for Peace Communications on Friday. – AFP

ARBIL: More than 300 Iraqis, including tribal leaders, called for a normalization of ties with the Zionist entity at a conference in autonomous Kurdistan organized by a US think-tank, drawing a chorus of condemnation yesterday from Baghdad. The first initiative of its kind in Iraq, a historic foe of the Zionist entity and where its sworn enemy Iran has a strong influence, the conference was held Friday.

The organizers, the New York-based Center for Peace Communications (CPC), advocates for normalizing relations between the Zionist entity and Arab countries, alongside working to establish ties between civil society organizations. Iraqi Kurdistan maintains cordial contacts with the Zionist entity, but the federal government in Baghdad, which has fought in Arab-Zionist wars, does not have diplomatic ties with the Zionist state.

Four Arab nations – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – last year agreed to normalize ties with the Zionist entity in a US-sponsored process dubbed the Abraham Accords. “We demand our integration into the Abraham Accords,” said Sahar Al-Tai, one of the attendees, reading a closing statement in a conference room at a hotel in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil.

“Just as these agreements provide for diplomatic relations between the signatories and (the Zionist entity), we also want normal relations with (the Zionist entity),” she said. “No force, local or foreign, has the right to prevent this call,” added Tai, head of research at the Iraqi federal government’s culture ministry. However, Iraq’s federal government rejected the conference’s call for normalization in a statement yesterday and dismissed the gathering as an “illegal meeting”.

The conference “was not representative of the population’s (opinion) and that of residents in Iraqi cities, in whose name these individuals purported to speak,” the statement said. The office of Iraq’s President Barham Saleh, himself a Kurd, joined in the condemnation. Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr urged the government to “arrest all the participants”, while Ahmed Assadi, an MP with the ex-paramilitary group Hashed Al-Shaabi, branded them “traitors in the eyes of the law”.

The culture ministry, in a statement, said its employee Tai who attended the Arbil forum did not represent the ministry, but she had taken part as “a member of a (civil society) organization”. The 300 participants at the conference came from across Iraq, according to CPC founder Joseph Braude, a US citizen of Iraqi Jewish origin. They included Sunni and Shiite representatives from “six governorates: Baghdad, Mosul, Salaheddin, Al-Anbar, Diyala and Babylon,” extending to tribal chiefs and “intellectuals and writers”, he told AFP by phone.

Other speakers at the conference included Chemi Peres, the head of a Zionist foundation established by his father, the late president Shimon Peres. “Normalization with (the Zionist entity) is now a necessity,” said Sheikh Rissan Al-Halboussi, an attendee from Anbar province, citing the examples of Morocco and the UAE. Kurdish Iraqi leaders have repeatedly visited the Zionist entity over the decades and local politicians have openly demanded Iraq normalize ties with the Zionist state, which itself backed a 2017 independence referendum in the autonomous region. – AFP