News & Politics

Flying the Flag

A former auto mechanic enlists the aid of savvy DC lobbyists and sympathetic Washington politicians on behalf of his homeland, which just happens to be an oil-rich part of war-torn Iraq.

Qubad Talabani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s man in Washington, works to win friends and build support for his people. Photograph by Vincent Ricardel.

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.

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 ha
ve genuine interests in having an elevated US presence in the north.”

But Samir Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador in Washington, says the problem is that, by lobbying for a consulate in Kurdistan, Talabani is interfering in the central government’s business. “We feel wider representation of the United States through consular services is to be welcome,” Sumaida’ie says. “But that is for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to determine.”

A few months before he sent Dana Rohrabacher the consulate resolution, Ayal Frank sent him another piece of draft legislation addressing one of the most troublesome issues between Arab Iraqis and the Kurds—how to determine control of oil-rich Kirkuk. It called on Congress to support implementation of article 140 of the Iraqi constitution—a provision requiring residents of disputed areas, including Kirkuk, to vote on whether they should be controlled by the central Iraqi government or by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The constitution set a 2007 deadline for the referendum, which still hasn’t been held.

The stakes are high. Kirkuk sits atop an estimated 8.5 billion barrels or more of crude oil. Whoever controls Kirkuk controls its untapped wealth.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, thousands of Kurds—some forced out by Saddam and some new settlers—have moved to Kirkuk. If the referendum is held, there’s a good chance they’ll constitute a large enough voting bloc to get the city annexed to Kurdistan. Observers fear that could ignite a civil war with Baghdad.

Rohrabacher never introduced this resolution; his office didn’t respond to requests as to the reason. But Talabani’s lobbyists are still pursuing the issue.

Greenberg Traurig’s John Einwechter is one of them. Greenberg is the only one of Talabani’s lobby shops that’s also a law firm. Einwechter says his legal background helps him explain Iraq’s constitutional issues, such as article 140, to policymakers in Washington.

“What the US wants is a constitutional democracy to prevail in Iraq,” he says. “We can promote that by promoting understanding of the Iraqi constitution.”

Talabani says his government is committed to sharing the oil wealth of Kirkuk with the rest of Iraq under a formula already agreed on with Baghdad. The formula, however, is just an agreement—it’s not a law.

Still, Talabani says, “the reality is there’s enough of this pie to distribute.”

Yet another problem is that no national legal framework is in place to protect foreign investment in oil exploration. The Kurdistan Regional Government passed its own oil-investment law in 2006, but Baghdad considers contracts signed under it to be illegal.

This dispute has deterred American oil companies from venturing into Kurdistan. So far, only four US oil companies are operating there—Hunt Oil, Aspect Energy, Hillwood International Energy, and Prime Natural Resources.

The Department of Commerce sent a trade mission to Kurdistan in 2008—its first and only such mission to Iraq since the United States invaded. Then–deputy Commerce secretary John Sullivan, now a partner in the DC office of the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, led the delegation of American business representatives.

The trip did not include oil or gas companies. Sullivan calls the issue “a political football” and says Commerce was focused on encouraging Kurdistan and Baghdad to reconcile their differences over oil regulations. Even in touting investment in other sectors, Sullivan says, the department walked “a fine line. . . . We had to keep perspective and not go too far such that the government in Baghdad would think that we were encouraging separatism for Iraqi Kurdistan.”

This hasn’t kept Talabani from promoting oil investment. “We really reached out to the international oil market and told the world that we’re open for business,” he says. Lobbying disclosures show several meetings and phone conversations with oil executives, including Ray Hunt of Hunt Oil and Scott Larsen, president of TransAtlantic Petroleum, to discuss Kurdistan’s oil-and-gas market.

And if the Commerce Department is a reluctant supporter, the US Chamber of Commerce is not. It established a Kurdistan Region Investment Task Force in 2008.

Yasmin Motamedi, head of the chamber’s Middle Eastern Affairs Department, says a number of American businesses belong to the task force, including oil and gas companies, though the chamber declined to name them. Like the Commerce Department, the chamber has sent business representatives to Kurdistan. Oil companies didn’t attend those trips either, but Motamedi says they weren’t specifically excluded.

Talabani’s lobbyists at Greenberg Traurig also have led business delegations that included representatives interested in the transportation, telecommunications, and agriculture sectors—but not the oil-and-gas industry.

The final front of Talabani’s campaign is the American media—he believes Kurdistan has been “failing the PR battle.” He says the media like an underdog, and now that Kurdistan is emerging as an economic and political force in Iraq, it’s losing that status. Allegations of human-rights abuses by Kurds don’t help.

After his government approved a larger public-relations budget for his office last spring, Talabani hired the Washington public-relations firm Qorvis, which represents such image-challenged foreign clients as Saudi Arabia. Kurdistan pays Qorvis a $40,000 monthly retainer, though Talabani says he’s still working out the specifics of the firm’s role in his operation. He temporarily brought in the lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates under a three-month, $50,000 contract to help interest members of Congress in traveling to Kurdistan.

If the regional government he represents looks less and less like an underdog, Talabani himself bears little resemblance to one. With the flashy car, sharp suit, and roster of lobbyists and consultants, he looks and acts the part of a Washington powerbroker. But his influence is limited by a critical detail:

The Kurdistan Regional Government “has views that we’re receptive to,” says the State Department official speaking anonymously, “but it’s different because they are not an embassy.”

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.