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Flying the Flag
Comments () | Published April 1, 2010

And he retains his love of sports cars. Among the academic and policy books in his office is a large volume about Porsches, one of which he drives. He’s also an amateur photographer—but there’s not much time for hobbies. Talabani faces a tough battle in Washington.

For all the Kurdistan Regional Government’s practiced independence, it’s still part of Iraq, and American officials are careful not to jeopardize relations with the central government by siding too strongly with Kurdistan.

One US State Department official, speaking anonymously because he’s not authorized to comment on the matter, says there’s no competition between Talabani’s office and Baghdad’s Washington headquarters. “Our relationship is clearly with the [Iraq] embassy,” he says.

Recent accounts of human-rights abuses in the Kurdistan Region haven’t helped Talabani’s cause. The organization Human Rights Watch published a report last fall detailing the use of intimidation and violence by Kurdish authorities to force minority communities in Iraq’s disputed oil-rich areas to identify as Kurdish, which could help the Kurdistan Regional Government win control of the valuable territory. The Kurds, historically cast as a persecuted minority, now find themselves portrayed as oppressors.

But the biggest challenge for Talabani is holding Washington’s attention. Unlike the George W. Bush administration—which, Talabani says, “ate, drank, and slept Iraq”—the Obama administration has shaken up the agenda.

“I love Washington,” Talabani says. “It’s the best city in the world to be doing this kind of work. But it can jump from one issue to the next so quickly. Suddenly you try to get interest from Congress on Iraq, and everybody is Pakistan-focused and Afghanistan-focused.”

The Kurds were among the few groups in Iraq to welcome the 2003 US invasion enthusiastically. Their pro-US attitude stems from the final years of Saddam’s regime, when an American-protected no-fly zone allowed the Kurds to establish their autonomous region. Iraqi Kurdistan today is more secular than other parts of the country—and no American has been killed there since the start of the Iraq War.

All of that helped Talabani gain access to the highest levels of Bush’s circle. Lobbying filings with the Justice Department show him meeting with then–Vice President and Mrs. Cheney at their residence and attending a dinner party with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Talabani met with Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, even after Libby’s reputation was marred by his role in the Valerie Plame affair. Talabani explains that Libby was an ally while he served in Cheney’s office, and “loyalty is big for us.”

Now that the United States is withdrawing from Iraq, Talabani is trying to convince Congress and the Obama administration that Kurdistan has a lot to lose. “It’s premature to say Iraq is in the bag, Iraq is solved, and we can move on to the next issue,” he says.

As American troops pull out, Talabani is betting that money can secure long-lasting friendships in Washington.

One of his first objectives was to find support in Congress. He assigned Kurdistan’s lobbyists at BGR Group, Greenberg Traurig, and the Arlington-based consulting firm American Business Development Group the job of forming a Kurdish American Caucus in the House of Representatives.

The Kurdistan Regional Government pays monthly retainers of $40,000 to Greenberg Traurig and $10,000 to American Business Development Group. It pays BGR Group the most—$135,000 a quarter.

BGR—home to some of the best-connected Republican lobbyists in town, such as former George H.W. Bush White House officials Ed Rogers and Lanny Griffith—is the only firm on Kurdistan’s payroll that Talabani didn’t personally hire, according to lobbying filings.

Talabani and BGR have a complicated past. When Talabani worked for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, BGR lobbied for the rival Kurdish Democratic Party. BGR’s current contract with the Kurdistan Regional Government was signed not by Talabani but by Kurdistan’s then–prime minister, a leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party. BGR declined to comment for this story, citing a policy of not talking about clients.

Talabani says BGR’s influence has waned now that the Democrats control Washington, though he commends the firm’s ability to develop good strategy.

Based on Justice Department filings and Talabani’s description of his lobbyists’ roles, American Business Development Group, a less well-known and less expensive firm, is doing much of Kurdistan’s legwork on Capitol Hill.

Talabani calls his lobbyist there, Ayal Frank, “my guy.” The two met through their wives, who are cousins, when Frank was a staffer for then-representative James Maloney, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Talabani was working for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Frank took the lead on developing the Kurdish American Caucus, which presses the State Department to back Kurdish interests and pushes pro-Kurdish legislation in the House. In spring 2008, Frank found two congressmen to cochair it, Democrat Lincoln Davis of Tennessee and South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson. Both had traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan. They say they were so impressed by the people there that they were inspired to head the caucus.

Wilson was particularly taken with the region’s pro-American attitude. “I saw a very upscale subdivision, and it was very appropriately named Little America,” he says, adding that streets were named after US states.

The cochairs recruited other members, and Frank circulated information about the caucus to House offices, including talking points that members could use to answer possible objections from colleagues—for example, that the caucus implies congressional support for an independent Kurdistan, which undermines the US goal of national unity in Iraq. Frank’s answer circumvents the issue by saying that the caucus is meant simply to “promote understanding of Kurdish culture, history, and issues important to the Kurdish community in the US and elsewhere.”

Lobbyists at BGR and Greenberg hit their Rolodexes to get other members on board. The bipartisan caucus now numbers 33—15 Republicans and 18 Democrats.

Several caucus members are backing a House resolution, penned by Ayal Frank, calling on the State Department to open a US consulate in the Kurdistan region. The legislation was introduced in October by California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, who sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The only US consular services in Iraq are at the embassy in Baghdad—some 200 miles from Kurdistan. The resolution says that this is a problem for Americans visiting or living in northern Iraq who need consular services, and it asserts that a consulate will attract American investment to the region.

The push for a consulate is a primary objective for Talabani this year. The US Chamber of Commerce—where Talabani’s lobbyists helped establish a task force to encourage investment in Kurdistan—is supporting the effort.

Experts on the region say there’s risk involved. Michael Gunter, a professor at Tennessee Tech University who has written extensively on the Kurds, acknowledges that a consulate could be useful to Americans in Kurdistan but points out that “everyone knows it’s looked upon as quasi-diplomatic representation.” In other words, it could appear that the United States is treating Kurdistan as if it were independent.

Says Talabani: “I get a sense sometimes that our friends in the US create problems for themselves by overthinking things. We’re not asking for a consulate so we can gloat. We have genuine interests in having an elevated US presence in the north.”

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