Iraqi's warmth to Israel exacts a heavy price

First his two sons were murdered. Now he faces prosecution. The reason for Mithal al-Alusi

Iraqi government forces patrol the town of Mosul, Iraq, Thursday, May 15, 2008. Government troops began house-to-house searches for al-Qaida in Iraq militants in Mosul Thursday, part of a major security operation to cleanse Iraq's third-largest city from cells of the terror network. Described by the U.S. military as the last major urban base of al-Qaida in Iraq, Mosul has become the site of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's third security drive in two months as he attempts to defeat Shiite militants and Sunni extremists. (AP Photo)

BAGHDAD (AP) -- First his two sons were murdered. Now he faces prosecution. The reason for Mithal al-Alusi's troubles? Visiting Israel and advocating peace with the Jewish state - something Iraq's leaders refuse to consider.

The Iraqi is at the center of a political storm after his fellow lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to strip him of his immunity and allow his prosecution for visiting Israel - a crime punishable by death under a 1950s-era law. Such a fate is unlikely for al-Alusi, though he may lose his party's sole seat in parliament.

Because he had visited Israel, many Iraqis assume the maverick legislator was the real target of the assassins who killed his sons in 2005 while he escaped unharmed.

Now he is in trouble for again visiting Israel and attending a conference a week ago at the International Institute for Counterterrorism.

"He wasn't set to speak, but he was in the audience and conversed with a lecturer on a panel about insurgency and terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel," said conference organizer Eitan Azani. "We didn't invite him. He came on his own initiative."

Al-Alusi has a German passport, allowing him to travel without visa restrictions imposed on other Iraqis. Lawmakers accused him of humiliating the nation with a trip to the "enemy" state.

The uproar shows how far Iraq has moved from the early U.S. goal of creating a democracy that would make peace with Israel and remove a critical force from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The U.S. Embassy declined comment. "It is an issue for the Iraqi parliament, not the U.S. Mission to Iraq," said spokesman Armand Cucciniello.

"What has happened was a catastrophe for democracy," Al-Alusi told The Associated Press in an interview in his Baghdad home. "Within an hour's time, the parliament became the policeman, the investigator, the judge, the government and the law. It was a sham trial."

Al-Alusi said he went to Israel to seek international support for Iraq as it struggles against terrorism, and insisted that the outcry reflects Iranian meddling in Iraq's internal affairs - an accusation often leveled by Sunnis like himself against Iraq's mostly Shiite neighbor.

"Iran is behind Hamas and Hezbollah and many other terrorist organizations. Israelis are suffering like me, like my people. So we need to be together," he said. "Peace will have more of a chance."

Iraq sent troops to three Arab wars against Israel, and fired Scud missiles at it in the 1991 Gulf War. It remains technically at war with the Jewish state. Iraq's once-thriving Jewish community has shriveled to just a few people, most having fled after Israel was founded in 1948.

"Al-Alusi has insulted the hundreds of Iraqi martyrs who fell while fighting the Israelis," said Osama al-Nujeifi, a Sunni lawmaker. "It was a provocative visit to a historical enemy."

In Al-Alusi's living room, decorated with oriental rugs and paintings, his two dead sons, aged 19 and 29, smile from a photo hanging next to a stately grandfather clock.

A secular Muslim, he lit a cigarette during an interview even though this is the Muslim month of Ramadan, when food, water and smoking are forbidden during daylight hours.

Al-Alusi, 55, has a long history of clashes with authority and spent half his life in exile.

He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1976 - he was studying in Cairo at the time - for allegedly trying to undermine Saddam Hussein. He went to Syria and Germany, returning in 2003 after the dictator was overthrown.

Even in exile, he caused commotion, leading a group that stormed the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin in 2002 to protest against Saddam's regime. A German court convicted him of hostage-taking and other charges, but he appealed and never served his full sentence of three years.

In 2004, he was expelled from Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress for his earlier visit to Israel, also for a terrorism conference.

In February 2005 came the ambush. Asad Kamal al-Hashimi, a former culture minister in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death last month on charges he planned the ambush. Al-Hashimi remains a fugitive.

After his expulsion from the Iraqi National Congress, al-Alusi formed the Iraqi Nation Party, which he describes as a "liberal, secular and democratic party" with 12,000 members.

Al-Alusi said Iraq should follow Jordan and Egypt in seeking peace with Israel, especially since Syria is moving in that direction. He insists Israel would have to make concessions to the Palestinians.

"We should act now because if the Syrian-Israel talks succeed, this means that Iraq will be isolated," he said. "It's the right time to open a new phase with Israel."


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