By Jack Detsch September 12, 2018
Iraq's Kurds are doubling down on their lobbying efforts after failing to get Washington's backing for their independence bid.
With the Islamic State all but defeated and the Trump administration eyeing the exits in Iraq, Washington is favoring Baghdad over Erbil, leaving the Kurds in the lurch. The Kurdistan Regional Government is responding, in tried-and-true Washington fashion, by paying a coterie of lobbyists to try to influence Congress and the administration.
“We were expecting much more from the US. We were expecting a hands-on … engagement to stop the atrocities and the military attacks on [the Kurds],” KRG foreign relations chief Falah Mustafa told Al-Monitor after Baghdad booted the peshmerga out of disputed parts of northern Iraq following the September referendum 2017. “But we are where we are. We need the US to engage … to make sure there will be no instability, there will be no clashes, and our constitutional rights are protected.”
After a lull in spending that saw lobbying payments dip to $212,000 in 2016, the KRG spent $1.4 million on four separate firms in 2017, according to a review of public disclosures by Al-Monitor. And this March, the Ministry of Interior's Joint Crisis Center hired Virginia-based PASS LLC for $600,000 a year, the KRG's largest current lobbying contract.
The firm's public filing contains an unusually detailed plan to seek official Senate backing for an international humanitarian donor conference to help Erbil cope with some 1.4 million Syrian refugees and internally displaced Iraqis that the KRG says have sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kuwait hosted a similar conference for Iraq’s postwar reconstruction earlier this year during which donors pledged $30 billion, far less than the $88 billion sought by Baghdad.
Separately, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Iraqi Kurdistan's largest party, ended its 6-month-old contract with the conservative husband-and-wife team diGenova & Toensing on Jan. 1 after paying the firm $261,000 to advocate in favor of the independence referendum. At the same time, Kurdish businessman and aspiring politician Shaswar Abdulwahid lobbied against the referendum via his Sulaimaniyah-based PAM Media company, which paid former Trump campaign consultant Bryan Lanza and the Mercury lobbying firm $30,000 between June and October 2017.
Meanwhile, the KRG's liaison office in Washington received $1.86 million in 2017, up from $1.34 million in 2016.
The stepped-up lobbying campaign has had mixed success.
While Congress has so far declined to introduce a stand-alone resolution calling for a donors’ conference, as called for in the KRG's contract with PASS, Senate appropriators did single out the Kurdistan region in their pending foreign aid bill for fiscal year 2019. Report language accompanying the bill instructs the Trump administration that an unspecified portion of the Senate's $4.4 billion request for international disaster assistance and $3.4 billion request for migration and refugee assistance should be made available to Erbil “to mitigate the impact of internally displaced persons and refugees.”
Weeks after the Senate released its foreign aid spending bill in late June, panel Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., visited Erbil along with Trump administration officials and praised the Kurds for hosting displaced people fleeing the war.
“Pleased to receive my friend and US Senator Lindsey Graham and his accompanied delegation in Erbil,” KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani tweeted July 3. “Improving the already excellent ties between the Kurdistan Region and the US remains a priority of my government.”
Despite the accolades, the Kurds' dreams of standing up an independent nation with US help are fading fast.
Talk of directly arming the peshmerga, a recurring topic of debate in Congress when the Islamic State was ascendant, has gone quiet. Worse, one of the Kurds' best friends on Capitol Hill, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., died of brain cancer in August.
Likewise, the Pentagon has hit pause on its cooperation with the Kurds since they withdrew from the US-led campaign against the Islamic State in December.
The Defense Department approved the sale to Baghdad of $296 million worth of equipment to outfit two peshmerga brigades with armored Humvees, M-16 rifles, mine-resistant vehicles and machine guns last year. But the agency’s memorandum of understanding with the Kurdish fighters ended in September, halting $365 million that had been budgeted for stipends.
The Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2019, which starts Oct. 1, does not include a specific line item for the peshmerga. The 150,000-strong force, however, could still get paid from a $850 million train-and-equip fund that the Pentagon is budgeting for to fight the Islamic State in Iraq.
The fiscal 2019 request carves out $290 million for the “operational sustainment” of the Iraqi Security Forces, which include the peshmerga. Congress in turn has weighed in to request that the Kurds get the entire amount, with the House passing an amendment to annual defense legislation in May asserting that the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs “in conjunction with the Central Government of Iraq” needs the money to help “consolidate gains, hold territory, and protect infrastructure” and “deal a lasting defeat” to the Islamic State.
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