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Iraq: Kurds Cultivating Their Own Bonds With U.S.

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  • Zafar Khan
    Kurds Cultivating Their Own Bonds With U.S. By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, April 23, 2007; Page A01
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 26, 2007
      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
      Middle East.

      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
      Talabani's mentor.

      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
      phone messages.

      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
      three helicopters.

      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
      the country."

      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
      Cruz, Calif.

      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
      heard before."

      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
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