Washington at War | The Other Iraq

Kurds Cultivating Their Own Bonds With U.S.

Qubad Talabani represents the Kurdish Regional Government in Washington. As the son of Iraq's president, he has enormous clout.
Qubad Talabani represents the Kurdish Regional Government in Washington. As the son of Iraq's president, he has enormous clout. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007

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.

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.

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