By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
Cash-strapped Baghdad has had to lay off its lobbyists just as ethnic and religious minorities are ramping up rival campaigns for influence in Washington.
The Iraqi Embassy parted ways this year with its longtime lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, as well as with a more recent hire, Al-Monitor first reported in August. The moves come as an array of minority groups — notably Kurds, Christians and Sunni Arab tribes — are pressing US policymakers to endorse their demands for more autonomy after the fall of the Islamic State (IS).
The lobbying cutbacks follow years of war and falling oil prices that have taken a toll on Baghdad’s budget. While Iraq spent roughly $720,000 on the Podesta Group’s services last year, lobbying disclosures indicate the war-ravaged country spent only $37,000 on the firm in the first five months of 2017 before terminating its contract on May 31.
“[With] the glut in the oil crisis [and] the cost of war [against IS], the government took measures to reduce financing for certain activities for Iraqi ministries and that directly affected us,” an Iraqi official told Al-Monitor in August. “So we had to cut the spending for the lobbying efforts for the time being.”
Iraqi officials told Al-Monitor they had planned to rehire Tony Podesta, a Democratic super-lobbyist whose brother was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, when financially feasible. Those plans were derailed however when Podesta's firm imploded this fall after it was linked to the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Iraqis also hope to resume their relationship with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which was hired a few days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration for $40,000 per month but was terminated Oct. 6.
"With the new administration,” the Iraqi official said, “we wanted more of a bipartisan approach in our lobbying.”
Lobbying expenses could indeed be money well spent with a new US administration that favors massive foreign aid cuts. The Trump State Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 zeroes out military assistance for Iraq, down from $150 million this year, while cutting economic assistance by 10%, to $300 million. It also proposes slashing humanitarian assistance, of which Iraq remains a major recipient.
The Department of Defense, meanwhile, is asking for $904 million to train and equip a 20,000-person force to hold territory liberated from IS and to resupply the Iraqi army and other security forces. In a further sign that the United States is in Iraq for the long haul despite Trump’s stated aversion to nation-building, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s proposed annual Defense bill would reauthorize the US Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq for another year and broaden its mission to help support police and civilian security organizations dealing with the aftermath of IS’ defeat in addition to the Iraqi military.
Another $365 million is reserved for stipends and support for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) peshmerga fighters, although that assistance remains in limbo after a memorandum of understanding between the Pentagon and the KRG lapsed over the summer. The pending peshmerga aid follows a lobbying blitz by the semi-autonomous KRG in Erbil, whose liaison office in Washington has spent about $1.5 million annually in recent years to court allies on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch. The KRG also employs a half-dozen lobbying firms in Washington, on which it spent more than $200,000 last year funneled through the liaison office according to an Al-Monitor review of lobbying records.
Meanwhile, a wide array of Sunni tribes are also furiously lobbying to protect their interests as Iraq undergoes another massive political upheaval following IS’ drawn-out defeat. The provincial council of Salahuddin, for example, has paid DC lobbying powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs nearly $60,000 so far this year to gain US support for the Sunni-majority governorate’s push for greater autonomy from Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government.
Separately, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian-majority Iraqi political party, and its armed wing, the Ninevah Plain Protection Units, have created the Ninevah Plain Defense Fund inside the United States. The group advocates for US aid to Christian militias operating in Iraq’s Ninevah province, which has long been on the front lines against IS. One of the key agents on the account is Joseph Schmitz, a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign.
Despite its difficulties, the Iraqi government has been able to score a few significant lobbying wins so far this year.
In June, House Armed Services Committee members warned in guidance language accompanying their annual Defense authorization bill that future funding for the Kurdish peshmerga would be contingent on Iraqi Kurdistan remaining a part of a “unified Iraq.” The Trump administration likewise has doubled down on previous US policy to keep Iraq united, urging the KRG not to proceed with its Sept. 25 referendum on independence and refusing to intervene when Baghad reclaimed disputed territory from the Kurds a month later.
Baghdad has also successfully argued for changes to Trump’s travel ban, whose original version in January barred Iraqi nationals from entering the United States along with citizens of six other Muslim-majority countries. After Baghdad vehemently objected against singling out a key partner in the fight against IS, however, the president removed Iraq from his revised order after Baghdad agreed to “enhance travel documentation, information sharing, and the return of Iraqi nationals subject to final orders of removal.”
Days later, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the White House to a warm welcome by Trump.
"We have been given assurances that the [US] support will not only continue but will accelerate for Iraq to accomplish the task," Abadi said after meeting the president.