War-weary Iraqis feel about Gaza but fear the conflict will spread

Iraqis have known the bitter taste of war so intimately and frequently over the past 40 years that they say they can viscerally feel the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. They remember the dreaded hiss of a bomb before impact, the fear of a knock on the door bringing the news of the loss of a loved one, the stench of blood drying on concrete.

This has been the daily life of many Iraqis for years, as the rebel struggle against the American occupation and the civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims brought destruction and death to their neighborhoods, destroyed families and left behind countless widows and orphans.

Initially those memories pushed thousands of people to demonstrate in the streets of Iraqi cities to show their solidarity with the Palestinian cause. But as the war in Gaza has dragged on, those displays of support have faded.

“You want to help,” said Yasmine Salih, a 25-year-old dental student, referring to the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, “but you can't because your problem bucket is full.”

Nowhere is this feeling more vivid than in Baghdad's historic Adhamiyah neighborhood, where most people follow the Sunni branch of Islam, as do most Palestinians. Many here took up arms against the U.S. military occupation of Iraq that began in 2003, and see Israel's attacks on Gaza as a similar fight against an occupying force.

Many people in the neighborhood cheered when they heard the news of the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7. But since then, the crowds have dwindled, partly due to the realization that their efforts could do little to help the Palestinians, residents say. .

“When the Hamas attack happened, it was like a good omen,” said Sheikh Mohammed Samir Obaidi, 44, a lawyer and local Adhamiyah leader who supported the Palestinian cause. “We celebrated here,” he added.

Yet six months later, when Sheikh Obaidi tried to organize a peaceful rally and prayer for Palestinians after the Israeli attack on Al-Shifa hospital in March, he said he was bitterly disappointed by the turnout.

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

In 20 interviews conducted in Sunni, Shiite and mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, as well as in conversations with political scientists and pollsters, it is clear that Iraqis have a deep sympathy for the Palestinians. Yet many of those same people still feel overwhelmed by the consequences of the Iraq conflict.

“Many Iraqis resist the idea of ​​directly interfering in this war, and the reason is that they have had enough of wars and don't want to get involved in another one,” said Munqith Dagher, an Iraqi pollster, now based in Jordan. . “They suffered a lot.”

According to Brown University's Cost of War project, at least 272,000 Iraqis have been killed in the past 20 years of conflict. At least another 250,000 – with some estimates much higher – died during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, according to estimates from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ms. Salih, the dental student, is pursuing a master's degree while caring for her 2-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy. Sitting in a bar in Karada, a neighborhood where she had come to study, she tried to describe the conflicting feelings she feels about balancing her own struggles and the plight of Gazans.

“At first, when I saw the videos – especially of pregnant women and children – I cried and cried,” she said. “But for a long time Iraqis have suffered a lot of trauma, and so even when you see terrible things, you stop feeling. It's as if we have become numb.”

Despite her age, Ms. Salih has already lived through the American invasion, the ensuing sectarian war and the Islamic State takeover of much of northern Iraq in 2014.

As the daughter of a mixed marriage – one parent was Sunni and the other Shia – she was close to relatives from both sects who were killed.

“What is happening in Gaza is horrible,” he said. “We know this because of what we have suffered,” she said.

Other young Iraqis have given up even focusing on the conflict. Hamid, 22, who declined to give his last name, sells cheap sneakers and T-shirts at an outdoor stand in a shopping area near the Tigris River in Baghdad. He expressed a general sense of concern, but made it clear that he wanted to avoid the topic.

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

Complicating matters for many is the desire to distance themselves from what they see as an incipient proxy war between the two largest foreign actors in Iraq, the United States and Iran. Many Iraqis criticize U.S. support for Israel, which they say is hypocritical as American leaders speak publicly about their support for human rights, pointing to what they say are human rights violations by Israel against Palestinians.

But their views of Iran are, if anything, more disparaging, because its influence in Iraq is more pervasive and visible. Many in particular appear to resent Iran's support for Iraqi Shiite armed groups, who, with Tehran's blessing, have joined the fight against Israel by launching rockets and drones at U.S. military camps from inside Iraq and, in February , began almost daily attacks against Israeli targets.

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

Iran-backed groups in Iraq say they are supporting Gazans by attacking the United States, Israel's ally. But the United States has periodically returned fire, including in Baghdad, reminding Iraqis how quickly conflict can return.

In Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, although most residents adhere to the same Shiite branch of Islam as most Iranians, many see the Iranian government as a malign influence.

“Frankly, Iran put the Palestinians in this situation; they encouraged Hamas on October 7,” said Abu Tibba, a 48-year-old day laborer and father of four who is also a volunteer organizer of 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 go to Friday prayers in late April.

“Iran not only got the Palestinians in trouble, but also saw their homes destroyed by Israel and their children killed by Israel,” he said. “For 40 years, Iran has said 'Death to America,' 'Death to Israel,' and what happened? Palestinian homes are destroyed. Palestinians are killed. The Palestinians have nowhere to go.”

In Iraq, conversations about the Palestinians, Gaza, and Israel increasingly turn into discussions about the United States and Iran.

Noor Nafah, 32, a member of Parliament who participated in protests in Iraq in 2019 against corruption and Iranian influence and is not affiliated with any political party, said the war in Gaza had pained Iraqis through a series of overlapping reasons.

He highlighted young people's disillusionment with U.S. support for Israel; anger that Iran and the United States were usurping Iraq's sovereignty and fighting on Iraqi soil; and concern that Iraq's fragile economy cannot afford to be drawn into the conflict.

But above all, he said, many Iraqis point out that, after decades of internal war, they are only now stitching their lives back together.

“People tell me, 'Please, please let me deal with my problems first,'” he said. “'All these difficult things from the past still affect us.'”

Falih Hassan contributed from Baghdad.

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