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Iraq's Kurds cultivate bonds with U.S.

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.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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 joyful."

"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 consultants.

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.

Seeking protection
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 protection."

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 said.

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 Iraq.

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 Kurdistan.

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."

Navigating Washington
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 Department.

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 business."

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 buzz.

"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 surfers.

'We should be encouraging them'
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 way."

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 time.

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 said.

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 dream."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.