Lobbying 2014: Podesta plays matchmaker for estranged US, Iraq

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Article Summary
The United States and Iraq find themselves in intensive couples counseling as they try to save a failing marriage of convenience that could hold the key to defeating the biggest terrorist threat since al-Qaeda.

The United States and Iraq both hoped they’d be seeing a lot less of each other when the last American troops left the country in 2011.

Instead, they find themselves in intensive couples counseling as they try to save a failing marriage of convenience that could hold the key to defeating the biggest terrorist threat since al-Qaeda.

With Sunni militants threatening to tear the country apart, Baghdad turned to Democratic super-lobbyist Tony Podesta early last year to encourage the US government to get back in the fight. It has been a tough sell for the administration of President Barack Obama, who had boasted of pulling the United States out of Iraq, but rapid gains by the Islamic State group (IS) over the past few weeks have forced a re-evaluation.

Obama vowed in a June 19 speech announcing the first steps of America’s latest intervention, “Going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

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Obama at the time laid out plans for the creation of joint operation centers and requested that Congress fund a $5 billion counterterrorism program to counter growing threats, notably in Iraq. The administration has since approved a $700 million contract for 5,000 Hellfire missiles, beefed up surveillance flights to almost 50 a day and dispatched 825 military advisers, while sending the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to the region.

Congress, which can still block the missile sale, has also changed its tune, lifting its hold on the sale of Apache attack helicopters earlier this year. The administration also recently informed Congress of its intention to sell Iraq more Humvees and turboprop aircraft.

The United States remains reluctant to do much more, however.

Obama has so far turned down Iraqi requests for air strikes against IS columns. House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly July 25 to demand the president seek Congressional approval before stepping up US involvement. And key senators remain skeptical of sending more US weapons.

“I am really hesitant to continue … to approve sales when I see what has happened so far with some very critical armament that has fallen into the hands of [IS] as a result of it being abandoned on the battlefield,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said at a July 24 hearing.

Lawmakers and the administration say they want to see a more inclusive Iraqi government before they sign off on greater US support. Without political changes, they maintain, the conflict will continue to be fueled by sectarian tensions between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government and disaffected Sunnis.

The Iraqi government says that’s not a winning plan.

“You should know that there are some in Iraq who argue that the administration’s policy in response to the crisis in Iraq — providing limited support to us now, and using the prospect of US air support and other military assistance to encourage political reforms in Baghdad — is a conscious strategy for doing nothing, by erecting preconditions that we probably can’t satisfy,” Iraqi ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily wrote in a July 22 letter to Menendez obtained by Al-Monitor. “Such suspicions are highly corrosive to America’s relationship with Baghdad, and to the strategy that the administration is pursuing. If Iraqis don’t believe that meaningful US assistance is forthcoming, then they will not be incentivized to adopt the political reforms that America is urging.”

US frustration with Maliki has been building for years. The White House in particular has accused his government of allowing Iran to fly weapons and personnel over Iraq to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as undermining sanctions on Iran’s financial sector.

The two countries, however, agree on the need to keep Iraq united. The United States wants Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region to forgo independence and is pressuring other countries not to buy Iraqi oil shipped without Baghdad’s consent.

To ensure that the United States won’t abandon Iraq, Baghdad penned its first US lobbying contract since the fall of Saddam Hussein with a firm known for its close ties with Vice President Joe Biden, who was given the Iraq file early in Obama’s presidency. Leading the $960,000-a-year — plus $40,000 for expenses — lobbying effort is former Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker.

Days after the contract was signed, Podesta set up a meeting with former Biden speechwriter and Middle East advisor Jon Finer, now a senior advisor to Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken. Lobbying has focused mainly on Congress since then, however.

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Julian Pecquet is Al-Monitor's Washington Editor. He was previously Congressional Correspondent from 2014 through May 2017 and most recently before that headed up The Hill's Global Affairs blog. On Twitter: @JPecquet_ALM, Email: jpecquet@al-monitor.com.

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