comscore Iraqi Kurds build Washington lobbying machine to fund war against ISIS | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Iraqi Kurds build Washington lobbying machine to fund war against ISIS

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 fundraisers 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 a war bankrupt,” Talabani said. “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 Talabani’s visit — which included meetings with officials from the White House, State Department, Pentagon and on Capitol Hill — came with a decidedly different agenda: seeking money to finance a foreign war.

Talabani and the small delegation that Kurdistan has in Washington have used tactics similar to 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, and, more important, a commitment late last month for $415 million in additional aid to support the Kurds’ peshmerga militia force.

“They are willing to fight,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., who is a member of the Kurdish-American Congressional Caucus that 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.

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, Irbil, contrasted with the continuing chaos in Baghdad — highlighted by the storming on 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 Irbil on Tuesday during a clash with the Islamic State.

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

The cash crunch in Kurdistan — so severe that the government fell behind in payments to the peshmerga 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 its contract.

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

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 a town house 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 Kurdistan delegation, who like Talabani was educated in Britain. “We have no choice.”

The Kurdish lobbying team in Washington mobilized last summer. A series of private meetings were set up with lawmakers including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., 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 undersecretary 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 Abdul Rahman and an employee assigned to focus on lobbying, Remziya Suleyman, have their own personal stories of hardship.

Abdul Rahman’s father and brother were killed in 2004 during a bombing in Irbil. Suleyman was 3 years old when her family fled Kurdistan in 1988 to escape chemical attacks carried out under Saddam Hussein.

To bolster the effort, the Kurdistan government has sent a stream of top officials to Washington, including 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.

Already, the Kurds have started to receive some behind-the-scenes support from political consultants who work on Israel’s behalf in Washington and who see the Kurds — a minority group that like the Jews have at times been targeted for persecution by Arabs in the Middle East — as an unusual but potentially important ally.

It is a delicate relationship, Abdul Rahman agreed, because the Kurds cannot appear to be too closely aligned with Israel without causing tensions with neighbors like Iran.

“Here in Washington, if the pro-Jewish and pro-Israel interests see the Kurds are a friend of the Jewish community, it could lead to Congress being even more forceful in its support of the Kurdish Regional Government,” said Zach D. Huff, a political consultant who traveled to Washington from Israel in April to help the Kurdish lobbying effort, a visit that included a meeting with the powerful, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to ask for its assistance.

Just last month, two House lawmakers — Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Brad Sherman, D-Calif. — 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, 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 peshmerga, bypassing Baghdad, and setting up what will most likely be another clash with the Obama administration.

“My priorities?” Franks said. “Assisting our allies, the Kurds, in their fight against ISIS.”

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