Home News War-weary Iraqis sympathize with Gaza but fear conflict spreads

War-weary Iraqis sympathize with Gaza but fear conflict spreads

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Having known the bitterness of war so deeply over the past 40 years, Iraqis say they can feel the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. They remember the horrifying whistle of a shell before it hits the ground, the fear of hearing the knock on the door with news of a loved one’s death, the stench of blood drying on concrete.

For years, this has been daily life for many Iraqis as an insurgency against U.S. occupation and a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims brought destruction and death to their communities, tore families apart and left countless widows and orphans.

These memories initially prompted thousands of Participate in demonstrations Demonstrations were held in the streets of cities across Iraq to show their support for the Palestinian cause, but as the war in Gaza dragged on, that support faded.

“You want to help,” said Yasmine Salih, a 25-year-old dental student, of the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, “but you can’t because you have enough troubles of your own.”

That feeling is most evident in Baghdad’s historic Adhamiya neighborhood, where most people practice Sunni Islam, as do most Palestinians. Many here have taken up arms since 2003 to fight the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, and they see Israel’s assault on Gaza as a similar fight against an occupation force.

Many people in the neighborhood cheered when news of the Hamas-led attack on Israel was heard on Oct. 7. But residents said the crowds have thinned out since then, in part because they realize their efforts do little to help the Palestinians.

“When the Hamas attack happened, it was like a good sign,” said Sheikh Mohammed Samir Obaidi, 44, a lawyer and local leader in Adhamiya who has supported the Palestinian cause. “We are celebrating here,” he added.

Yet six months later, when Sheikh Obeidi tried to organize a peaceful demonstration and pray for the Palestinians, Israel attack He said he was very disappointed with the results when he was treated at Al-Shifa Hospital in March.

“Even though we held the event after the noon prayers on Friday when 2,000 people had gathered, they did not stay,” he said. “They just went home for lunch.”

In 20 interviews conducted in Baghdad’s Sunni, Shia and mixed communities, as well as conversations with political scientists and pollsters, it was clear that Iraqis have deep sympathy for the Palestinians. Yet many of them remain reeling from the consequences of Iraq’s own conflict.

“The reason many Iraqis oppose direct intervention in this war is that they are fed up with it and don’t want to be involved in it anymore,” said Munqith Dagher, an Iraqi pollster who now lives in Jordan. “They’ve had enough.”

At least 272,000 Iraqis According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, more than 250,000 people have been killed in conflicts over the past 20 years. According to the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, at least 250,000 more people were killed, and some estimates are even higher. estimate Developed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ms. Saleh, a dental student pursuing an advanced degree while caring for her two-year-old son who has cerebral palsy, sat in a cafe in Karada, the neighborhood where she came to study, and tried to describe the conflicting feelings she felt as she balanced her own struggles with the plight of Gazans.

“At first, when I saw the videos — especially the ones of pregnant women and children — I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “But Iraqis have been through so much trauma for so long that even when you see something horrific, you become numb. It’s like we’ve become numb.”

Despite her age, Ms. Saleh has lived through the U.S. invasion, the sectarian war that followed and the 2014 Islamic State seizure of much of northern Iraq.

As a child of a mixed marriage — one parent is Sunni, the other Shia — she was close to relatives from both sects who were killed.

“What’s happening in Gaza is horrific,” she said. “We know this because we’ve suffered,” she said.

Other young Iraqis are not even paying attention to the conflict anymore. Hamid, a 22-year-old who declined to give his last name and sells cheap sneakers and T-shirts at an open-air stall in Baghdad’s commercial district near the Tigris River, expressed widespread concern but made clear he wanted to avoid the subject.

“Palestine is our second state and Al-Quds is our third city,” he said, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem. But he said Iraq “should not be involved”.

Further complicating matters for many is a desire to distance themselves from the looming proxy war between Iraq’s two largest foreign powers: the United States and Iran. US support for IsraelThey see this as hypocritical given that U.S. leaders speak publicly about their support for human rights and point out that Israel violates the human rights of Palestinians.

But they view Iran more disparagingly, because its influence is more widespread and visible in Iraq. Many seem particularly resentful of Iran’s support for Iraqi Shiite armed groups, which, with Tehran’s backing, have joined the fight against Israel and fired rockets and drones at U.S. military camps from inside Iraq, starting in February with an almost daily barrage of them. attack against Israeli targets.

“To Iraqis and people on the Iraqi street, it seems that Iran is using Iraq to serve its regional interests through the Gaza war,” said Firas Elias, a political science professor at the University of Mosul who specializes in Iraqi and Iranian politics. “However, if the conflict expands, Iraqis fear that their lives will be most affected.”

this Iran-backed groups Iraq’s opposition claims they are supporting Gazans by attacking the United States, an Israeli ally. But the United States has occasionally fought back, including in Baghdad, reminding Iraqis that conflict could soon flare up again.

In Baghdad’s Sadr City district, many see the Iranian government as an evil force, even though most residents, like most Iranians, practice Shia Islam.

“Frankly, Iran put the Palestinians in this situation; they encouraged Hamas on Oct. 7,” said Abu Tibba, 48, a day laborer, father of four and volunteer organizer for the populist and nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “Where does Hamas get its weapons to fight Israel? From Iran,” he said as he prepared to attend Friday prayers in late April.

“Not only are the Palestinians trapped by Iran, their homes are being destroyed by Israel, their children are being killed by Israel,” he said. “For 40 years, Iran has been saying ‘Death to America,’ ‘Death to Israel,’ and what’s the result? Palestinian homes are being destroyed. Palestinians are being killed. Palestinians have nowhere to go.”

Time and again in Iraq, conversations about Palestine, Gaza and Israel have morphed into discussions about the United States and Iran.

Noor Nafah, 32, a member of parliament who took part in the 2019 protests against corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq and is not affiliated with any political party, said the Gaza war was causing pain for Iraqis for many reasons.

She cited young people’s frustration with U.S. support for Israel, anger at Iran and the United States for usurping Iraqi sovereignty and fighting on Iraqi soil, and fears that Iraq’s fragile economy cannot afford to be drawn into the conflict.

But most importantly, she said, many Iraqis stressed that they are only now beginning to regain some semblance of normalcy after decades of war in their country.

“People say to me, ‘Please let me deal with my own problems first,’ ” she said. “‘All these hard things from the past are still weighing on us.’ ”

Falih Hassan made his contribution in Baghdad.

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