Iraq’s parliament passed sweeping legislation this week that would broaden the crime of normalizing ties with Israel, in a rare show of solidarity amid an eight-month political deadlock.
The legislation, passed on Thursday, goes further than a similar law dating back to 1969 by setting out much wider definitions for acts that would be considered a violation. Both the old law and the new make this a crime potentially punishable by death.
The law makes Iraq an outlier in the Arab world, where a growing number of countries have signed on to a campaign driven by the United Arab Emirates to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Iraq cites support for Muslims and opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as its rationale for refusing to forge ties with Israel.
Normally, according to Iraq’s constitution, the law must be signed by the president. But if he fails to do so, it would nonetheless take effect within 15 days.
The new law was proposed by the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose faction won the largest number of seats of any single bloc in an October election and has been negotiating for the past eight months to form a government. It was widely seen as a bid to shore up his movement’s domestic political support in the drawn out negotiations.
“Sadr is trying to pull the rug from underneath the other people’s feet,” said Hiwa Osman, a political analyst based in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He was referring to the competition between Mr. Sadr and Iran-backed political factions inside Iraq, which have stressed their opposition to Israel and its strongest ally, the United States.
The U.A.E., which is Sunni Muslim, is a leading regional rival to Shiite Iran. Iraq, unlike most other Arab countries, is majority Shiite with many powerful Shiite factions and militias inside government and out that are closely linked to Iran.
Mr. Sadr, however, is viewed as an Iraqi nationalist less tied to Iran than some other Shiite political leaders in the country.
“He is telling them ‘You cannot be more patriotic than me,’” Mr. Osman said of the inter-Shiite political rivalry that has characterized Iraqi politics in recent years.
The legislation poses a dilemma for Iraqi President Barham Salih, who, like any one who would serve as president in the current political calculations, needs the support of Mr. Sadr and his allies. Mr. Salih is not expected to sign the legislation.
While few Iraqis outside politics are focused on Israel or the machinations of their own deadlocked parliament, the legislation has been met with alarm by the United States.
The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disturbed” by the passage of the law, adding it jeopardized freedom of expression.
“I don’t think the Iraqi legislators are aware of the scope of international reaction and consequences of passing this law,” said Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Baghdad-based research group, Iraq Advisory Council.
It could make American and other foreign companies engaged in business with Israel wary of doing business with Iraq.
If enacted as envisioned, the law would make it make it illegal for Iraqis inside or outside the country to engage even on social media with Israeli officials or attend conferences by organizations with ties to Israel.
A provision to expel foreign companies and investors in Iraq who were also conducting business with Israel and seize their assets in Iraq was removed from an even harsher draft version of the bill, said Mr. Alaaldin.
The provisions of the law would also apply to the government of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, which is known to have friendly but not publicly acknowledged ties with the Israeli government.
Despite that, the Iraqi parliament’s Kurdish deputy speaker Shakhwan Abdullah, a member of the powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party, voted for the bill as did the speaker of parliament, a Sunni Arab, Mohammed Halbousi. Mr. Halbousi has been traditionally backed by the U.A.E., the driving force behind normalization with Israel.
The KDP, a close ally of the United States, joined forces earlier this year with Mr. Sadr and Mr. Halbousi to try to form a new government.
In an indication of the Kurdistan region’s tacit acceptance of Israel, a U.S. research group organized a pro-normalization conference last September in Erbil with the acquiescence of the Kurdish government. The conference brought together Iraqi sheikhs aimed at normalizing relations, but instead resulted in death threats and arrest warrants for the key Iraqi participants.
A senior U.S. official said that a home near Erbil that was struck in March by an Iranian missile attack was an Israeli intelligence outpost, although a senior Biden administration official publicly refuted that assessment.
On Thursday in Baghdad, after the vote a group of Iraqi parliament members, at least one waving a poster of Mr. Sadr, chanted “Yes to Iraq, no to Israel.” Some chanted “no to America.”
A statement by Iraq’s parliament said the law was passed “unanimously.” Of the 329 members of parliament, 275 showed up for the session.
In contrast to the apparent parliamentary unity on the anti-normalization measure, Iraq’s conservative parliament for years has failed to pass a domestic violence law replacing existing legislation, which gives men the legal right to “punish” their wives. It has gone months in past sessions without passing crucial budget laws.
While the two-paragraph 1969 anti-normalization law also made promoting ties with Israel a crime potentially punishable by death, the current multipage version focused on criminalizing specific activities it views as encouraging normalized ties with Israelis and with Israel.
Under the current law, an attempt at normalization would include “communication and contact by any means with the Zionist entity and with its representatives” by an Iraqi individual, institution or organization in the cultural, political, scientific, commercial, economic, media or security sphere.
The legislation was drafted “in order to preserve the national and Islamic principles in Iraq and the constants of the Iraqi people in defending Palestine and its people and all the Arab peoples whose lands are occupied,” the law read.
As Iraqis head into another sweltering summer of electricity cuts and other deficient public services, few citizens are focused on the issue of normalization with Israel or another of Mr. Sadr’s recent campaigns — opposing homosexuality.
“The last thing on most Iraqis minds is these issues,” said Mr. Osman. “The general public doesn’t like Israel, but to go all the way on an issue that is neither here nor there right now, it’s very weird.”
Nermeen al-Mufti, Falah Hassan and Jaafar al-Waely contributed reporting from Baghdad.