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War-Weary Iraqis Feel for Gaza, but Fear Spread of the Conflict

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

This was daily life for many Iraqis for years as an insurgent struggle against the American occupation and a civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims brought destruction and death to their neighborhoods, shattered families and left behind countless widows and orphans.

Those memories initially prompted thousands of people to join demonstrations on the streets of Iraq’s cities to show their solidarity with the Palestinian cause. But as the war in Gaza dragged on, those displays of support faded.

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

Nowhere is that sense more vivid than in Baghdad’s historic Adhamiyah neighborhood, where most people follow the Sunni branch of Islam — as do most Palestinians. A number here took up arms against the American military occupation of Iraq that began in 2003, and they view the Israeli assaults 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 Oct. 7. But since then, the crowds have dwindled, partly because of a recognition that their efforts could do little to help Palestinians, residents say.

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

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

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

In 20 interviews in Sunni, Shia and mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, as well as in conversations with political scientists and pollsters, it is clear that Iraqis feel a deep sympathy for Palestinians. Yet many of those same people still feel overwhelmed by the aftermath of Iraq’s own conflicts.

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

At least 272,000 Iraqis were killed during the last 20 years of conflict, according to Brown University’s Cost of War project. At least 250,000 more — with some estimates far higher — died during the Iraq-Iran war during the 1980s, according to estimates by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ms. Salih, the dental student, is pursuing an advanced degree while caring for her 2-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy. Sitting in a cafe in Karada, a neighborhood where she had come to study, she tried to describe the conflicted feelings she has about balancing her own struggles with the plight of Gazans.

“At the beginning, when I saw the videos — especially of the pregnant women and the children — I was crying and crying,” she said. “But for a long time Iraqis have suffered a lot of trauma, and so you get so that even when you see terrible things, you stop feeling. It’s as if we’ve become numb.”

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

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

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

Other young Iraqis have turned away from even allowing themselves to focus on the conflict. Hamid, 22, who declined to give his last name, sells cheap sneakers and T-shirts at an outdoor stand in a commercial area near the Tigris River in Baghdad. He expressed a general sense of concern, but made clear he wanted to avoid the subject.

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

Complicating matters for many is a desire to distance themselves from what they see as an incipient proxy war between the two biggest foreign players in Iraq, the United States and Iran. Many Iraqis decry the United States’ support for Israel, which they say is hypocritical given that American leaders talk publicly about their support for human rights, pointing at what they say are Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians.

But their views of Iran are, if anything, more disparaging, because its influence in Iraq is more pervasive and visible. Many especially seem to resent Iran’s backing of 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 near daily attacks on Israeli targets.

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

The Iranian-backed groups in Iraq say they are supporting Gazans by attacking Israel’s ally, the United States. But periodically the United States has fired back, including in Baghdad, which has reminded Iraqis of how quickly conflict can return.

In the Sadr City district of Baghdad, despite most residents adhering to the same Shiite branch of Islam as that of most Iranians, many see the Iranian government as a malign influence.

“Frankly, Iran put the Palestinians in this situation; they encouraged Hamas on Oct. 7,” said Abu Tibba, a 48-year-old day worker and father of four who is also a volunteer organizer for the populist and nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “Where does Hamas get 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, Iran got their houses wrecked by Israel, their children killed by Israel,” he said. “For 40 years, Iran has been saying ‘Death to America,’ ‘Death to Israel,’ and what has happened? Palestinian houses are destroyed. Palestinians are killed. Palestinians have nowhere to go.”

Over and over in Iraq, conversations about Palestinians, Gaza and Israel morph into discussions of 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 pained Iraqis for a host of overlapping reasons.

She ticked off young people’s disillusionment with the U.S. support for Israel; anger that Iran and the United States were usurping Iraq’s sovereignty and fighting on Iraqi soil; and worry that Iraq’s fragile economy cannot afford to get drawn into the conflict.

But above all, she said, many Iraqis stress that after decades of war at home, they are only now stitching their lives back together.

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

Falih Hassan contributed from Baghdad.