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Iraqis debating new relationship with Israel, but most favor long-standing hostility

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A recent series of events, including a handshake between Iraq's interim prime minister and Israel's foreign minister at last month's United Nations meetings in New York, has set off public debate over whether the Iraqi government is trying to change Iraq's long-standing enmity with Israel.

Iraqi officials deny that any changes are afoot. They say Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was merely being polite when he took the hand of Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who was sitting next to him because countries' delegates were arranged in alphabetical order at the United Nations.

But many Iraqis are viewing developments with suspicion.

"I knew after America invaded Iraq, the first thing that would happen (is) we would have a relationship with Israel," said Mohammed Saleem, 24, a student in Baghdad. "I have nothing against having relations with the Israelis on the condition they give the Palestinians their rights and their own country."

Any warming in Iraqi-Israeli relations would be a major change in the Middle East's power equation. Saddam Hussein was widely revered in Arab nations for his anti-Israel stance.

During the Persian Gulf War, in 1991, his army fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel. Before he was toppled he sent money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. The Israelis bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, fearing that Saddam would use it to develop nuclear weapons.

Even with Saddam in prison awaiting trial, there seems to be little popular support for embracing Israel. An August survey of 1,000 people in Baghdad by the Iraqi Center for Research found that the largest group, 32 percent, answered "Israel" when asked "Who is, in your opinion, Iraq's number one enemy right now?" The next largest group, 23.2 percent, named the United States. Islamic extremists came in third, at 12.3 percent.

In Iraq's National Assembly, some called Allawi's handshake disgraceful and demanded an apology.

One of the most outspoken advocates of a new Iraqi view toward Israel is Mithal al Alusi, a former spokesman for Ahmad Chalabi, who's head of the former exile group the Iraqi National Congress. Al Alusi visited Israel in September for a terrorism conference and argues forcefully that other Arab countries have reached accommodations with Israel and Iraq needs to do the same.

"One of the most important countries to Iraq is the U.S. They helped us get rid of Saddam and they also are helping us build so we can support our country. One of the most important American allies in the Middle East is Israel," al Alusi said.

"How can we work and build stability and ignore Israel?" al Alusi asked. "We cannot ignore our strategic borders."

An Iraqi newspaper reported Monday that Iraq's highest court has charged al Alusi with treason for the visit and his family has denounced him, asking that he no longer use his last name because they don't want to be associated with him. The report couldn't be confirmed.

The Iraqi National Congress, which many thought would be among the most receptive to better Iraqi-Israeli relations, fired al Alusi after his visit, saying he didn't represent the organization.

Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, thinks Allawi's government may be trying to foist a new position on its citizens before anyone is receptive to it. Such moves threaten their leadership, Cole said.

"They may think they can ram a new relationship with Israel through, regardless of public opinion," Cole said. "There is a lot of money to be made, after all, and lots of good will to be picked up from the U.S. and from lobbies in the U.S."

Observers in Washington see little push for a rapid change in Iraqi policy toward Israel. David Mack, a former State Department official who's an analyst for the Middle East Institute in Washington, said he thought nobody in Washington was paying any attention.

"Iraq's position on Israel is not the priority" in a country beset by insurgent-led violence, he said.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Shatha R. Al Awsy and Omar Jassim contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.