MIDDLE EAST POLITICS

(Excerpts from an article of the New York Times)
Iraqi Kurds Build Washington Lobbying Machine to fund War Against ISIS
By ERIC LIPTON May 6, 2016

Monique Cochinal
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Qubad Talabani, center, the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Karim Sinjari, the minister of the interior and acting minister of pesh merga affairs, right, met in Washington in April with Zalmay Khalilzad, a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times.

WASHINGTON – The marble-floored atrium at the office of Dentons, a prominent law and lobbying firm, is a popular venue for the capital’s elite to gather for political fund-raisers and ritzy receptions for corporate clients.

But the featured guest one recent evening was not a member of Congress or a company executive. It was Qubad Talabani, the deputy prime minister of the regional government of Kurdistan, the financially struggling region in northern Iraq that is desperately looking for ways to pay for its war effort against the Islamic State after its economy was decimated by the global drop in oil prices and a surge of refugees.

“You cannot win war bankrupt,” Mr. Talabani said in an interview. “If we are the boots on the ground against ISIS, we have to be supported to stand on our own feet.”

Washington is bloated with thousands of special pleaders, most of whom want to push or derail legislation or a regulation. But Mr. Talabani’s visit – which included meetings with officials from the White House, StateDepartment, Pentagon and on Capitol Hill – came with a decidedly different agenda : seeking money to finance a foreign war.

Mr. Talabani and the small delegation that Kurdistan has in Washington have used tactics similar to those of corporations that spend millions of dollars to grease the levers of power, retaining five firms to push its cause. They have been effective, winning over a rare combination of military hawks, conservative Republicans and a collection of liberal Democrats in Congress. More important, they secured a commitment late last month for $415 million in additional aid to support the Kurds’pesh merga militia force.

“They are willing to fight” said Representative Gerald E. Connoly, Democrat of Virginia, who is a member of the Kurdish-American Congressional Caucus, which the lobbying team helped set up in the House. “They are the only group that has had consistent battlefield success”.

Kurdish officials say they will continue to press for additional money for ammunition, armored vehicles and protective gear against chemical weapons, requests that lawmakers say they are looking for ways to accommodate.

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What is perhaps more notable is that the Kurds are succeeding even in a climate of austerity on Capitol Hill. The relative stability in Kurdistan and in its capital, Erbil, contrasted with the continuing chaos in Baghdad – highlighted by the storming last Saturday of the Iraqi Parliament building by protesters – has only enhanced the clout of the Kurds in Washington. But it is also an area of a continued threat, including to American military forces there, with one American service member killed by enemy fire near Erbil on Tuesday during a clash with the Islamic State.

“I am prepared to do whatever I can to support your noble efforts”, Representative Trent Franks, Republican of Arizona, told a gathering of Kurdish officials on Capitol Hill late last month. “We are not going to quit”.

Document : Travelogue of Kurdistan Regional Government’s Lobbying in Washington
The cash crunch in Kurdistan – so severe that the government fell behind in payments to the pesh merga forces – has complicated the lobbying effort, meaning that some of the firms have been paid less than specified in their contracts. Dentons, for instance, collected just $5,000 a month during parts of last year instead of the $20,000 a month called for in the contract.

But the lobbying pitch has, if anything, only intensified. Disclosure records filed with the Justice Department show more than 2 300 contacts with member of Congress – emails, telephone calls, meetings and other events – just in the last half of 2015, including private conversations with at least six United States senators.

The campaign, taking place at the same time as Kurdistan is planning a referendum on a proposal to establish itself as a nation independent from Iraq, has created tensions between Washington and Baghdad, Iraqi officials are engaged in their own diplomatic effort, backed by another high-priced Washington lobbying firm, the Podesta Groups.

In addition to the push for more money for their military, the Kurds and their lobbyists recently persuaded the United States to remove two of Kurdistan’s prominent political parties from a list of potential terrorist groups.

Kurdistan is not entitled to have an official embassy in Washington; its small but well-connected team instead operates out of an embassy-like townhouse a few blocks from the White House that displays flags from both Iraq and Kurdistan.

“We have to punch above our weight” said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the head of the Washington-based delegation, who like Mr. Talabani was educated in Britain, and speaks with a British accent. “We have no choice”.

The Kurdish lobbying team in Washington mobilized last summer. A series of private meetings were set up with lawmakers including Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, as the lobbyists and the Kurdish delegation attempted to line up votes for a Senate proposal to provide direct military support to the Kurds, bypassing Baghdad.

The Obama administration objected to the proposal. But the measure was popular enough to win 54 votes, just a few short of the 60 it needed to move ahead, sending a clear sign that the Kurds had wide congressional support.

“’It is easy for the Kurds to make the case as more people in the United States now recognize who the Kurds are and what they are doing”, said David M. Tafuri, a former State Department official who helps lead the Dentons team lobbying for Kurdistan. “So it is easier for them to get an audience in Washington”.

Besides Dentons, the lobbying team includes Ed Rogers, a Republican and former White House aide who is a founder of the BGR Group, and Joe R. Reeder, a former under secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration who is now at the lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig.

Kurdistan, which until the drop in oil prices had seen its revenues surge in recent years as it increased exports of oil through a pipeline connecting the region to Turkey, has spent nearly $6 million on outside lobbyists and public relations firms in Washington since 2010, far more than countries like Kazakhstan and Pakistan.

The Washington-based team of Kurds, led by Ms. Abdul Rahman and an employee assigned to focus on lobbying, Remziya Suleyman, have their own personal stories of hardship. Ms. Abdul Rahman’s father and brother were killed in 2004 during a bombing in Erbil.

To bolster the effort, the Kurdistan government has sent a stream of top officials to Washington, including Mr. Talabani, as well as Sherzad O. Mamsani, who was recently named as Kurdistan’s first director of Jewish affairs in an open appeal to build support in Israel for the Kurdish effort.

Just last month, two House lawmakers – Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, and Brad Sherman, Democrat of California – both known as strong supporters of Israel, introduced their own resolution, asking the State Department to send military assistance to the Kurds.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Franks, who more typically is focused on finding ways to cut federal spending, moved to reintroduce legislation authorizing the Pentagon to deliver weapons directly to the pesh merga, bypassing Baghdad, and setting up what will most likely be another clash with the Obama administration.
“My priorities ?” Mr. Franks said. “Assisting our allies, the Kurds, in their fight against ISIS.

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