Between sympathy and rejection

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demonstrate in Baghdad in what was probably one of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies
On 13 October, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad in what was probably one of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies in the world (image: Murtadha J. A. Al-sudani/AA/picture alliance)

Palestinians living in Saddam Hussein's Iraq were courted until his overthrow in 2003, after which they suffered widespread harassment. Ever since the onset of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, however, Iraqis have been keen to show their solidarity

By Birgit Svensson

"I know people in the West would like to hear me condemn Hamas," says Rawan Al-Zaidi in Baghdad. "But I can't do that." The world had forgotten all about the Palestinians, she says, and now they are on everyone's lips again. Thanks to Hamas. "Whatever Israel does, the more atrocities its army commits against our people, the stronger Hamas becomes. It will never be possible to eliminate them." The prisoner exchange has now made people even more sympathetic, she says. 

Rawan is sitting in a small cafe called Branch in the upscale Baghdad district of Jadria, about 100 metres from the most expensive hotel in the Iraqi capital, where many Western diplomats come and go. Since the Gaza war began almost eight weeks ago, with Israel retaliating for the massacre perpetrated by Hamas in Israeli kibbutzim, the 27-year-old has been losing sleep, withdrawing into herself and becoming apathetic. 

The otherwise lively young woman, whose words usually flow effortlessly, a person who once took on new tasks with energy and verve and made a career as a successful entrepreneur, who has a husband and two children, has suddenly fallen silent. She finds herself unable to come to terms with what is happening to her people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. At Branch, she meets up with like-minded people to exchange views.

Rawan al Zaidi sits at a table in Cafe Branch in Baghdad
Cafe Branch in Baghdad has become a refuge for Rawan al Zaidi: since the Gaza war began almost eight weeks ago, with Israel retaliating for the massacre perpetrated by Hamas in Israeli kibbutzim, the 27-year-old has been losing sleep. At Branch, she meets up with like-minded people to exchange views (image: Birgit Svensson)

“This is no longer self-defence”

Although Rawan was born in Iraq and has Iraqi citizenship, she currently feels completely Palestinian. Her family comes from the small village of Deir al Sudan in the West Bank, not far from Ramallah. 

Her cousin worked as a doctor at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. But since Israel has been bombing the Gaza Strip almost around the clock and sending in ground troops, Rawan has not heard anything from her. 

What happened at Al-Shifa is unbelievable. "Netanyahu calls this self-defence?" The fact that Israel has the right to defend itself is attested to by nearly every European state and the nation's main ally, the USA. 

But more and more people are now wondering what the Israeli prime minister's concept of defence actually comprises. "This is no longer self-defence", says Rawan. "This is genocide against the Palestinians." 

For weeks, people across the Middle East have been demonstrating against Israel, whether in Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt or Iraq. No distinction is made between Hamas and the Palestinians, the civilian population in the Gaza Strip. 

Hamas is not seen here as a terrorist organisation, as it is in Western countries and in Israel, but as a liberation movement. The bloodier the images of the ground war are that are broadcast by all the TV stations, the more videos that emerge from Gaza, the more heated the mood becomes.

Headshot of Iraqi Shia cleric, politician and populist Muqtada al-Sadr; on his left is an Iraqi flag
Cleric and populist politician Muqtada al-Sadr styled himself a fighter for the Koran after the sacred book was burned by an Iraqi in Stockholm. Now he is fighting for the Palestinian cause and religion suddenly no longer seems important (image: Alaa Al-Marjani/REUTERS)

"We are all here for the Palestinians"

Palestinian flags and scarves can be seen everywhere in a show of solidarity, while aid campaigns are being coordinated and committees set up. Baghdad delivered an entire bakery to the Gaza Strip. Iraq has in fact taken the lead in supporting the Palestinians. 

Whether there were actually a million people who showed up for the protest on Tahrir Square in Baghdad doesn't matter. There were certainly hundreds of thousands. The route from the legendary protest site in the heart of the Iraqi capital to the water tower behind it stretched for one kilometre. And people stood tightly packed the entire way, leaving just enough space to kneel down when the imam said Friday prayers. 

They had all come to demonstrate for the Palestinians and against Israel. It was the largest protest worldwide since the Hamas attack on 7 October. "We are all here for the Palestinians, against Israel, against America and against all those who support Israel," were the words repeated over and over again by everyone who was interviewed. 

"It is not important whether a heroic Palestinian resistance fighter is a Shia or a Sunni," said Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia rebel and cleric who initiated the "Million March". "It doesn't even matter if they are Muslim at all, because fighting the Zionist enemy is about honour, pride and dignity." 

After the march, Sadr posted a tweet calling on the Iraqi government to cut off relations with the USA due to its unqualified support of Israel and to close the U.S. military bases and embassy in Iraq. If this did not happen, he threatened to "take appropriate actions" himself. 

Religion is no longer important

Just a few weeks ago, Sadr was styling himself as a fighter for the Koran after the sacred book was burned by an Iraqi in Stockholm, sending his followers to storm the Swedish embassy in Baghdad and set it on fire. 

Now he is fighting for the Palestinian cause and religion suddenly no longer seems important. Somehow the march had an air of mobilisation about it. Members of Shia militias are said to have gathered on the border with Jordan afterwards, ready to fight for the predominantly Sunni Palestinians. 

Rawan and her friends do not go to demonstrations launched by Muqtada al-Sadr. They do not want to be co-opted. Plenty of criticism of the Shia cleric's stance can also be found on social media. After all, the attitude in Iraq has not always been pro-Palestinian.

While Saddam Hussein welcomed the Palestinians into his country, giving them safe haven and even financially supporting the families of the "martyrs" killed in the struggle against Israel, the Shias who came to power after the fall of the dictator demanded that the Palestinians leave Iraq again. In retrospect, some speak of deportation.

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Precarious residency status

For weeks, many of the refugees were stranded at the Iraqi-Jordanian border until they were able to travel onwards to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Of the 34,000 Palestinians living in Iraq in 2003, only just under 4,000 remain today. Without clear residency status. Rawan knows that they have to go to the immigration office every year to apply for an extension of their visa. 

She herself is an exception, having obtained citizenship through her Iraqi mother. After being confronted with charges of duplicity, the expressions of solidarity voiced by al-Sadr and his supporters have died down. But his secondary goal is still to get supporters of Israel out of the country. And it would appear that he has been able to win over some pro-Iranian forces both in the Shia militias and the government.

Since the Million March on 13 October, there have been a total of 66 attacks on American and allied bases – 34 in Iraq and 32 in Syria – more than at any time since the end of the Islamic State terrorist militia in 2017. The strategy followed by the "Axis of Resistance" led by Iran and Syria includes getting Israel entangled in conflicts with its neighbouring states. Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen are therefore currently firing rockets at Israel, while the Iraqis are directing their attention to the American military bases in Mesopotamia. 

As allies of the USA, the Germans are also coming under pressure. The main targets of the drone attacks by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are the bases at the airport in Erbil in northern Iraq and Al Assad to the east of Baghdad. 

German soldiers are also stationed there. In the Kurdish capital, around 75 Germans are helping to train Kurdish armed forces, while another ten or so are operating an air surveillance radar system at the Al Assad base. In parallel with the international anti-IS coalition known as "Counter Daesh", NATO is augmenting its training mission in Iraq. A good 30 Germans are currently part of this "NATO Mission in Iraq". 

Upon their return to northern Iraq, the Bundeswehr soldiers couldn't help but notice that the camp there has changed considerably. It now resembles a fortress. Concrete pillars, barbed wire and sandbags dominate the scene. The roofs of the white accommodation containers for the soldiers are also secured against attack. A wooden windmill is the only decorative element at the site, a sign that Dutch soldiers are also stationed here. The German bar is still there, along with the "Oasis", where meals are eaten. 

As the leader of the German contingent, Colonel Dirk Bollinger, told a visitor, the new circumstances have necessitated a change in strategy. At the end of October, the Bundestag approved an extension of the German mandate. Bollinger and his team are to stay in Erbil for another year.

Birgit Svensson 

© 2023 

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor