Iraq: Kurds Cultivating Their Own Bonds With U.S.
- Kurds Cultivating Their Own Bonds With U.S.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007; Page A01
The 30-second television commercial features stirring
scenes of a young Iraqi boy high-fiving a U.S.
soldier, a Westerner dining alfresco, and men and
women dancing together. "Have you seen the other
Iraq?" the narrator asks. "It's spectacular. It's
"Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan!" the narrator continues.
"It's not a dream. It's the other Iraq."
With Sunni and Shiite Arabs locked in a bloody
sectarian war, Iraq's Kurds are promoting their
interests through an influence-buying campaign in the
United States that includes airing nationwide
television advertisements, hiring powerful Washington
lobbyists and playing parts of the U.S. government
against each other. A former car mechanic who happens
to be the son of Iraq's president is at the center of
Kurdish efforts to cultivate support for their
semi-independent enclave, but the cast of Kurdish
proponents also includes evangelical Christians,
Israeli operatives and Republican political
In the past year, the Kurds have spent more than $3
million to retain lobbyists and set up a diplomatic
office in Washington. They are cultivating grass-roots
advocates among supporters of President Bush's war
policy and evangelicals who believe that many key
figures in the Bible lived in Kurdistan. And they are
seeking to build an emotional bond with ordinary
Americans, like those forged by Israel and Taiwan, by
running commercials on national cable news channels to
assert that even as Iraq teeters toward a full-blown
civil war, one corner of the country, at least, has
fulfilled the Bush administration's ambition of a
peaceful, democratic, pro-Western beachhead in the
But elements of the Kurds' campaign run counter to the
policy of a unified Iraq espoused by the U.S. and
Iraqi governments. Some senior U.S. officials contend
that yielding to Kurdish demands for increased
autonomy could break up Iraq and destabilize Turkey, a
NATO ally that is fighting a guerrilla war with
Kurdish separatists -- some of whom have taken
sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurdish leaders cast their self-promotion initiative
as a bulwark against attempts to restrict their
federal rights. With only 40,000 or so Kurds living in
the United States, Kurdish officials insist they have
no choice but to pursue the dual strategy of wooing
non-Kurdish constituencies and lobbying in Washington.
"We have to use all the tools at our disposal to help
ourselves," said Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi
President Jalal Talabani, sent here as the Kurdistan
Regional Government's representative in Washington.
Kurds want the sort of "strategic and institutional
relationship" that Israel and Taiwan have with the
United States, Talabani, 29, said. "It doesn't matter
which party is in power in Washington -- the U.S.
government isn't going to abandon either of those
countries," he added. "We are seeking the same
Talabani, a former Maserati repairman, was raised by
his grandparents in Britain and moved to Washington in
2000 knowing nothing about power politics. He soon
began dating -- and later married -- a State
Department staffer working on Iraq policy. He wears
French-cuff shirts and Windsor-knotted ties with
pinstripe suits. He lunches at the Bombay Club and
works two blocks from the White House.
He has more clout than any other Iraqi in Washington
because of his ability to call his father directly and
because he represents the collective view of an
influential minority -- one that holds enough seats in
Iraq's parliament to wield effective veto power over a
proposed law to distribute national oil revenue to
Iraqis, as well as other legislation sought by the
United States. By contrast, Baghdad's ambassador to
Washington is a secular Sunni Arab who has limited
sway with his Shiite-dominated government.
Talabani is in regular contact with senior officials
in the White House. He drops in on members of
Congress, and he has met with four of the presidential
candidates: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen.
John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).
"We've been on the fringes for too long," Talabani
Lobbying for Support
Making friends in the United States is crucial for
Iraq's 5 million ethnic Kurds, most of whom live in
three mountainous northern provinces that are
administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government,
effectively a state within a state. The regional
government has the power to pass its own laws,
maintain its own internal security force and even bar
the entry of the Iraqi army. Iraq's national flag is
nonexistent in Kurdistan -- every government building
is adorned with the red, white and green Kurdish flag
-- and foreign visitors who fly into Irbil, the
regional capital, receive a visa to Kurdistan, not
Although the regional government was enshrined by
Iraq's constitution in 2005, it remains a point of
tension with Arab Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite, who
live to the south. Sunni Arabs have argued that
national reconciliation is impossible without revoking
many of the concessions given to the Kurds,
particularly a promise to hold a referendum this year
on whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk -- home to
Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds -- will become part of
The three nations that border Iraqi Kurdistan --
Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of which have significant
populations of ethnic Kurds -- also remain deeply
vexed by Kurdish autonomy in Iraq.
Most worrisome to Kurdish leaders, however, is their
relationship with Washington. The Kurds believe they
should be recognized as a certifiable success story in
a war that has lasted more than four years: They're
largely secular, no U.S. military personnel have been
killed in Kurdistan since the March 2003 invasion, and
business is booming in Irbil and other Kurdish cities
because Kurdish militias, known as peshmerga, have
managed to keep out Sunni Arab insurgents.
But Kurdish officials contend that the U.S. government
has done little to reward these achievements. The
State Department acknowledges spending 3 percent of
its reconstruction funds on the Kurds since 2003, even
though they make up about 20 percent of Iraq's
population. Kurdish leaders also argue that U.S.
diplomats have been pushing them to make concessions
that would weaken the regional government in an
attempt to placate Sunni Arabs.
"If they think that the Kurds are going to roll over
like lame puppies, and have the power that they have
earned taken away from them and given to those who
have done nothing but kill Americans, then they have a
shocking surprise awaiting them," Talabani said over a
gin and tonic at the Hay-Adams Hotel bar. "We exist on
the map, whether they like it or not."
The Kurds' lobbying activities in the post-Saddam
Hussein era began with a quest for $4 billion.
Kurdish leaders believed they were owed at least that
much from the United Nations' corruption-tainted
oil-for-food program, which regulated the sale of
Iraqi oil from 1995 to 2003. Because the money was
transferred to a trust fund controlled by the United
States shortly after the invasion, the Kurds set their
sights on Washington.
Back then, the two principal Kurdish political
organizations -- Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan
Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan -- had separate representatives in
Washington. Talabani's man was Barham Salih, who now
is Iraq's deputy prime minister and who became Qubad
The task of chasing down the money, however, fell to
Barzani's representative, Farhad Barzani.
Seeking help to navigate Washington, Farhad Barzani
turned to Danny Yatom, a former director of Israel's
spy service, the Mossad, according to senior Kurdish
officials and former U.S. government officials
familiar with the Kurds' efforts. Yatom's business
partner, Shlomi Michaels, who was looking for
investments in Kurdistan, agreed to help the Kurds
find a lobbyist, the officials said. The sources spoke
on the condition of anonymity.
Michaels initially sought out Jack Abramoff, then a
powerful Republican-connected lobbyist, the officials
said. But Abramoff, who was later convicted of bribery
and is now in prison, asked for more than the Kurds
wanted to pay, the officials said. One American
lobbyist said Abramoff wanted the Kurds to pay him
$65,000 a month. Michaels did not respond to several
Russell Wilson, a former Republican congressional
staff member whom Michaels asked for advice,
eventually suggested that the Kurds contact Ed Rogers,
a GOP political operative and former White House
official who runs one of Washington's most influential
lobbying firms. On June 3, 2004, Barbour Griffith &
Rogers agreed to represent the Kurdistan Democratic
Party for $29,000 a month.
Qubad Talabani said the firm lobbied the White House
for the $4 billion.
Twenty days later, on June 23, the U.S. occupation
administration in Iraq gave the Kurds $1.4 billion in
cash. The U.S. military flew the money -- brand-new
$100 bills in shrink-wrapped bricks -- to Irbil on
Although officials with the occupation authority
maintained that the payout was the Kurds' share of
Iraq's 2004 capital budget and was unconnected to
lobbying, Kurdish leaders insist otherwise.
Barbour, Griffith & Rogers's business with the Kurds
has since steadily expanded. The Kurdistan Regional
Government paid the firm $869,333 for work performed
in the first 11 months of last year, according to
lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Justice
The firm's lobbying was "very helpful in getting us
the oil-for-food money," said Talabani, who now
represents both Kurdish parties. "It was a tangible
victory for the Kurds."
A Friend in Commerce
Next up was an even bigger prize: the $18.4 billion in
U.S. reconstruction funds flowing into Iraq. As with
the oil-for-food money, Kurdish leaders believed they
deserved at least 20 percent -- their perceived fair
share based on Kurds' proportion of Iraq's population.
The State Department had a different view. Kurdistan
had been protected from Hussein's army since 1991 by
U.S. warplanes enforcing a no-fly zone, and had
enjoyed far greater development in the intervening
years than Arab-dominated parts of Iraq. Despite
Kurdish pleas and vigorous lobbying, the department
decided that the vast majority of the reconstruction
funds would go elsewhere.
By 2005, Kurdish leaders decided to shift their
strategy. Kurdistan was becoming an increasingly
popular destination for businessmen who deemed Baghdad
too dangerous for visiting or for investment. Rather
than argue about aid, the Kurds proposed that the U.S.
government encourage American investment in Kurdistan.
Talabani and Ayal Frank, a former congressional
staffer and legislative analyst for the Israeli
Embassy who was hired as a lobbyist by the Kurdistan
Regional Government, sidestepped the State Department
in favor of the Commerce Department, which they
considered more receptive. "If a door shuts on you,"
Talabani said, "you go in through the window." After
several meetings with Commerce's Iraq task force,
Talabani added, "common sense prevailed."
"In some quarters at State, there's this zero-sum
view: that helping the Kurds means you're hurting the
Arabs," he said. "People at Commerce had a different
view. They started to realize that developing safer
parts of the country is not detrimental to the rest of
Multiple meetings, phone calls and e-mails paid off on
Feb. 20 of this year, when Franklin L. Lavin, the
undersecretary of commerce for international trade,
traveled to Irbil to promote Kurdistan as a "gateway"
for U.S. business in Iraq. Lavin said his visit was
designed "to encourage companies that are looking at
Iraq . . . to think about particular locales that
might be more fruitful environments for starting a
Talabani said he considers Lavin's trip a "big
success" because it involved a Cabinet agency
"reassessing the way it views doing business in Iraq."
But for Talabani and other Kurdish officials, a major
barrier to U.S. investment remains: the State
Department's travel warning for Iraq, which cautions
that the country is "very dangerous," without
distinguishing one region from another.
Talabani has urged the department to change the
warning, which he said "tells the potential
businessman that all of Iraq is unsafe, and that's not
true." Although foreign investment is pouring into
Kurdistan, very little is from large U.S.
corporations, he added.
Lavin declined to comment on the matter, but Kurdish
officials said he has also pressed the State
Department to amend the warning.
In an April 3 letter to Talabani, Maura Harty, the
assistant secretary of state for consular affairs,
said the warning "accurately reflects the current
situation" in Iraq.
Talabani said he plans to urge members of Congress and
business executives to petition the State Department.
"We're going to keep up the pressure," he said.
The Minister and the TV Crew
As the Washington campaign unfolded, the other
component of the Kurds' influence-building strategy
was taking shape three blocks from the beach in Santa
Bill Garaway, an evangelical Christian minister,
realized that the Kurds had a public-relations problem
when he told his neighbors in the seaside town that he
was performing missionary work in Kurdistan.
"They said, 'Who are the Kurds?' " recalled Garaway.
"I said, 'There is nobody like them in the Middle
East. They're Muslim, but they hate fundamentalist
Islam. They love America.' "
On a trip to Iraq in late 2004, he pitched the idea of
airing commercials touting Kurdistan in the United
States. The Kurds were intrigued. They told Garaway to
produce a few spots.
He began filming in early 2005, with a camera crew
that captured children waving flags, shoppers
strolling through a new mall and peshmerga soldiers
saluting. By the end of the summer, he had created
three 30-second commercials.
The first, in which a succession of Kurds look into
the camera and thank the United States, aired last
summer on cable news stations. It generated immediate
"Seeing Iraqis say 'thank you' was very powerful,"
Garaway said. "It's not something most Americans had
Garaway, a rangy 62-year-old with receding silver
hair, became enamored with the Kurds more than a
decade ago, after concluding that many key events
described in the Bible occurred in Kurdistan,
including the stories of Noah's ark and Queen Esther.
He believes not only that the Kurds are descendants of
the ancient Medes people, but also that the three wise
men who the Bible says visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem
came from Kurdistan.
For Garaway, championing the Kurdish cause has been
the latest twist in a life filled with unexpected
turns. As he tells it, he protested the Vietnam War as
a college student, burning his draft card at a UCLA
rally in 1967. He subsequently lived in a commune with
140 others in the hills above Palo Alto, Calif., where
he ran a food cooperative, taught yoga, befriended
members of the Grateful Dead and hosted poet Allen
Ginsberg in his treehouse. One day, a group of friends
who had left the commune returned and invited Garaway
to join their church. He did, and soon after, he said,
"God revealed himself to me."
He and his wife settled in Santa Cruz in the early
1970s, where they opened a church, started to surf and
began to raise a family. They had six children, all of
whom were home-schooled. Four have become professional
Garaway, who has served as the president of a
Christian aid organization operating in northern Iraq,
said the Kurds should have an independent homeland --
a view that goes well beyond the stated positions of
Qubad Talabani and other Kurdish leaders.
"There's more of the best American values in Kurdistan
than anywhere else in the Islamic world," he said. "We
should be encouraging them, not standing in their
Garaway enlisted Russo Marsh & Rogers, a
Republican-oriented political consulting firm in
Sacramento, to place the commercials. The firm is
closely affiliated with Move America Forward, a
conservative advocacy group that has organized rallies
in support of continuing military operations in Iraq.
Last year, the group invited the director of the
Kurdistan Development Corporation, which coordinated
payment for the commercials, to speak at a luncheon in
San Francisco featuring parents of military personnel
who had died in Iraq.
Move America Forward also organized a trip for the
parents to visit Kurdistan, where they met with
Massoud Barzani and other prominent Kurds. Garaway
said he and Salvatore Russo, the chief strategist of
Russo Marsh & Rogers, arranged to be there at the same
The parents are now "some of the strongest supporters
of the Kurds," Russo said. "For them, it's a
validation that their child didn't die in vain."
After the trip, Move America Forward and the parents
issued a report calling for "developing and
maintaining a major U.S. military presence in Iraqi
Kurdistan" -- a key goal of Kurdish leaders.
Now Garaway hopes to take his national campaign on
behalf of Kurdistan to "the next level" with an
influential Washington partner: the
mechanic-turned-lobbyist Qubad Talabani. Garaway has
encouraged Talabani and other Kurdish leaders to spend
several million dollars this year to run all three
commercials on prime-time network television. "If more
of the American public sees these spots, we can have a
more rational approach to dealing with the war," he
Getting Americans "to understand our story," Talabani
agreed, is essential for the Kurds.
"We have a real story of the resilience of the
underdog, that shares the values of America, that is
succeeding," he added. "It's not unlike the American
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this