The townhouse at 1532 16th Street—a mile north of the White House—is owned and operated by a foreign government. It has the crystal chandeliers and glossy marble floors typical of an embassy. But it isn’t one.
And though his job is to protect his government’s interests in Washington, the man who occupies the sprawling office on the second floor is not an ambassador. He’s a lobbyist.
Qubad Talabani shies away from that word. His formal title is US representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, which controls Iraq’s northern tip and frequently clashes with the central government in Baghdad. Iraqi Kurdistan flies its own flag and has its own parliament and armed forces, but it’s not its own country—it operates as a state within a state. Thus, an official lobbyist is about as close as the region can get to having an ambassador to the United States.
Since taking on the role in 2006, Talabani has pieced together a broad campaign to strengthen Washington’s relationship with the Kurds—the largest ethnic group in Iraq after the Arabs. Throughout their centuries-long history in the region, the Kurds have survived constant persecution, most notably Saddam Hussein’s attempt in the late 1980s to exterminate them.
The inauguration of President Barack Obama brought about a renewed sense of urgency for Talabani. Now that the United States has set a deadline for withdrawing from Iraq, Talabani needs to shore up American support for Kurdistan as it faces off with Baghdad over land and oil.
The situation could become bloody. “In ten years or less, one could imagine armed conflict,” says Robert Olson, a history professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in Kurdish issues.
The tension between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan is apparent in DC. Baghdad’s man in Washington, Iraqi ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie, isn’t happy about Talabani. He says the Iraqi constitution asserts that the central government has exclusive authority over diplomatic and foreign relations: “So opening a separate representative office by the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] which engages in political activity is clearly contrary to the letter and the spirit of the constitution. Moreover, it is unnecessary since the region is well represented in the federal government.”
Both Sumaida’ie and Talabani downplay the risk of a full-blown civil war between Arab and Kurdish Iraqis. Still, Talabani stresses that the brutality visited on Kurds in the past makes forming alliances within the US government critical. After all, it was just two decades ago that Saddam killed as many as 150,000 Kurds and forced at least a million from areas such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. At the time, the Kurds had few friends in Washington to stand up for them.
Neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria—all of which have their own Kurdish populations—also feel threatened by the prospect of Iraqi Kurds gaining too much power and inspiring uprisings among the Kurds in their countries. Iraqi Kurds are the only ones who have established their own government and autonomous region, though most Kurds in all four countries consider themselves part of a larger Kurdistan.
Talabani isn’t working alone. In addition to his own advocacy, he relies on some of Washington’s most prominent lobbying and consulting shops. Iraqi Kurdistan has paid its lobbyists more than $4.6 million since 2007. Iraq’s central government spent $2.7 million on outside representation in 2009, but the work was limited to helping Baghdad restructure its external debt and, unlike Kurdistan’s efforts, didn’t include political advocacy.
More than 500 foreign governments, political parties, businesses, and other interests lobby in Washington, but they generate only a sliver of lobby-firm earnings. The big money comes from domestic clients such as Exxon Mobil, which spent $27.4 million on lobbying in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
For all his hired help, Talabani emphasizes that he’s in charge. He likens himself to the coach of a soccer team and his outside lobbyists to the players. He calls the shots but needs others with Beltway connections to execute the plan. “I realize you need to speak to a lot of people in this town to get your point across,” he says.
Given the delicate relationship between the Kurds, Baghdad, and the United States, his lobbyists are playing a much riskier game than soccer.
Talabani, only 32, is a natural spokesman. He’s handsome, with a wardrobe of impeccably tailored suits. He knows how to place a self-deprecating remark or intensify eye contact to play up a point. It’s hard to believe that 11 years ago he was an auto mechanic working on Maseratis and Lancias in a London suburb.
He had no political ambitions, but politics was and is the family business. His father, Jalal Talabani, is the president of Iraq. The fall of Saddam’s government made it possible for a Kurd to be a national leader.
For most of Qubad’s childhood, his father was off leading the Kurdish resistance against Saddam. Qubad’s mother left their home in Damascus to join his father when he was two, leaving Qubad to be raised by his grandparents in Surrey, England. Talabani’s grandfather was a leader of the movement for Kurdish rights, and his grandmother was a writer. Political activists visited often.
Talabani tried to evade the obvious career path. In 2000, two years after graduating from Kingston College with a degree in auto engineering, he was focused on saving enough money to buy his own car-repair garage. Then a family friend who happened to be the US representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—one of the region’s two main political parties—asked Talabani to move to Washington to be his assistant. At the time, Iraqi Kurdistan was represented here by two offices—one for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, another for its political rival, the Kurdish Democratic Party.
“I had no experience,” says Talabani. “I was used to fixing and breaking things.”
He took the job—and found he was good at it. He worked his way up to deputy in the office, then moved to Iraq at the start of the war in 2003 to serve as a liaison between the Kurds and American coalition forces. He landed in his current position a few years later when the Kurdistan Regional Government opened its first unified Washington office in place of the two party offices.
Today Talabani lives with his wife—an American he met while she worked on Iraq issues for the State Department—in Northwest DC. They’re expecting a son.