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A wealthy Iraqi sheikh who urges a hard-line U.S. approach to Iran spent 26 nights at Trump’s D.C. hotel

Sheikh Nahro al-Kasnazan, an Iraqi religious leader, stayed 26 days straight at Trump International Hotel. The Post's David Fahrenthold explains why. (Video: The Washington Post)
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In July, a wealthy Iraqi sheikh named Nahro al-Kasnazan wrote letters to national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging them to forge closer ties with those seeking to overthrow the government of Iran.

Kasnazan wrote of his desire “to achieve our mutual interest to weaken the Iranian Mullahs regime and end its hegemony.”

Four months later, he checked into Trump International Hotel in Washington and spent 26 nights in a suite on the eighth floor — a visit estimated to have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

It was an unusually long stay at the expensive hotel. The Washington Post obtained the establishment’s “VIP Arrivals” lists for dozens of days last year, including more than 1,200 individual guests. Kasnazan’s visit was the longest listed.

“We normally stay at the Hay-Adams hotel,” Kasnazan, 50, said in a recent interview with a Post reporter in Amman, Jordan, where he lives in a gold-bedecked mansion and summons his servants by walkie-talkie. “But we just heard about this new Trump hotel in Washington, D.C., and thought it would be a good place to stay.”

Kasnazan said his choice of the Trump hotel was not part of a lobbying effort, adding that he came to Washington for medical treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, about 45 miles away. Kasnazan, who socialized with State Department officials while in Washington, has set up several new companies in hopes of doing business with the U.S. government.

His long visit is an example of how Trump’s D.C. hotel, a popular gathering place for Republican politicians and people with government business, has become a favorite stopover for influential foreigners who have an agenda to pursue with the Trump administration.

A gallery of would-be foreign leaders — including exiles and upstarts who cannot always rely on a state-to-state channel to reach Trump’s government — have been gliding through the polished lobby of the Trump hotel since it opened in 2016.

Saudi-funded lobbyist paid for 500 rooms at Trump hotel after 2016 election

A few weeks before Kasnazan checked in, a pair of exiled Thai prime ministers spent the night. A few weeks after, a Post reporter saw a Ni­ger­ian presidential candidate holding court in the lobby. None stayed as long as Kasnazan, the leader of an order of Sufi Muslims who said he served as a paid CIA informant in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These visits offer proximity to Trump’s political orbit — as family members, advisers and fans regularly pass through the hotel and snap selfies in the lobby — while putting money into a hotel the president still owns.

“We saw all the Trumpers,” said Entifadh Qanbar, a Kasnazan spokesman and aide who was frequently with him at the hotel. “Many ambassadors, many important people. We didn’t talk to them, but we saw them in the hallways.”

The downtown D.C. hotel has emerged as a bright spot in the president’s portfolio at a time when there are signs of declining revenue at some of his other properties. Lobbyists for the Saudi government paid for an estimated 500 nights at the luxury hotel just three months after his election. Executives from the telecom giant T-Mobile booked at least 52 nights there last year.

The president’s ability to profit from foreign customers, in particular, while in the White House has drawn sharp criticism. The Trump Organization is battling a pair of lawsuits, including one filed by Democratic members of Congress, alleging that the business it does with foreign governments violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars payments to presidents by foreign states.

The company, which runs the hotel, declined to answer questions about how much Kasnazan paid for his stay, or whether it had informed anyone at the White House about the sheikh’s long visit. The company said it donated the profits of his stay to the U.S. Treasury as part of a voluntary policy aimed at countering claims that the president is in violation of the emoluments clause. Critics argue that the policy is insufficient, saying that the Trump Organization does not explain how it calculates its foreign profits or identify its foreign customers.

The Trump Organization did not say how much the profits were from Kasnazan’s stay and did not explain why in his case it applied the “foreign patronage” policy, which it has said is for business from foreign governments. He holds no government office, and his spokesman said he paid the bill himself.

The White House and the National Security Council declined to comment about the visit. State Department officials said that they were not aware of any official meetings between their personnel and Kasnazan at that time but that they could not say whether informal meetings were held.

Kasnazan willingly acknowledges an ambitious political agenda: He’s advocating for a U.S. military confrontation with Iran and wants U.S. help to blunt Iranian influence in Iraq. He also considers himself a viable candidate to become president of Iraq — even though others view him as a minor political figure.

In addition, Kasnazan has recently registered several companies in the United States to provide private security, oil field services and construction, and said he is eager to do business with the Trump administration.

“We are looking for opportunities,” he said.

Kasnazan checked into the Trump hotel on Nov. 30, a day after his brother, a former Iraqi trade minister, was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison on graft charges. Kasnazan is also facing charges, said Judge Abdulsatter al-Beriqdar, a spokesman for the Iraqi judiciary.

“Once they are in Iraq, they will be arrested,” al-Beriqdar said. 

Kasnazan denies the corruption allegations and says the charges are politically motivated.

Kasnazan said he paid for a suite and one additional room at the Trump hotel and stayed there with his wife and children until Dec. 26. Qanbar, the spokesman — who for years worked for the late Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi dissident who helped foment the Iraq War — declined to specify the cost but estimated that it was a “couple thousand” dollars per night.

Suites at the Trump hotel range from about $1,000 to $2,000 per night; at the Hay-Adams, they are about $840 to $1,840 per night. 

T-Mobile announced a merger needing Trump administration approval. The next day, 9 executives had reservations at Trump’s hotel.

During his recent stay in Washington, Kasnazan said, he socialized with some of the State Department’s Middle East experts outside of the hotel. One of them, Col. Abbas Dahouk, recently retired as a senior military adviser at the department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and previously served as a military attache at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

Dahouk said he viewed Kasnazan’s visit to the Trump hotel as an effort to make “himself available to talk about Iraq and to speak truth to power,” while seeking U.S. support for countering Iranian influence in Iraq. 

“It’s easier to meet people” at the hotel, he said. “Maybe indirectly to also show support to Trump.” 

“From his perspective, Trump is America,” Dahouk added.

'Mind-blowing' intelligence

Kasnazan comes from a prominent Sufi Muslim family from the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. His father, Sheikh Mohammad al-Kasnazan, is the Kurdish leader of a branch of the Sufi order, a form of Islamic mysticism. In ceremonies, the Kasnazan Sufis pray and chant and sometimes perform self-mutilation.

Kasnazan and his siblings had been imprisoned during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. They turned to the Americans for help in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion — and ended up assisting U.S. intelligence officials.

They met regularly with CIA officers working from small bases in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan and recruited dozens of informants from within their Sufi network who worked in Hussein’s military and intelligence services, as described in the 2004 book “Plan of Attack,” by Bob Woodward.

The intelligence provided by two Sufi brothers and their network was “so rare, so mind-blowing,” that the CIA gave them the code name ROCKSTARS, according to Woodward’s book.

The book does not identify him by name, but Kasnazan confirmed that it described his family’s network.

For their efforts, the CIA paid more than $1 million per month, Kasnazan now estimates. 

“It was expenses for the network,” he said.

The CIA declined to comment. 

During the war, Kasnazan turned his network into a private security company, the Iraqi Establishments Protection Co., winning contracts to protect U.S. military bases and oil installations, according to U.S. military documents he provided to The Post. 

The family’s Sufi militiamen were put to work guarding oil companies and U.S. military installations, such as ammunition depots and the Civil-Military Operations Center in Kirkuk. 

The business was just one part of his ambitions. He considered himself a natural choice to be president of Iraq. He viewed his Sufi order, which includes Sunnis and Shiites, as unifiers — a peaceable alternative to Iranian expansion on one side and al-Qaeda extremism on the other.

But in 2005, Kasnazan was banned from participating in elections by the commission that purged Hussein’s former party loyalists from government. In the years since, Kasnazan’s political party, the Coalition for Iraqi National Unity, has not established much of a footprint. 

The family’s most notable political achievement happened in 2014, when Kasnazan’s brother, Milas Mohammed Abdulkarim, was chosen to be trade minister. But that quickly ended in scandal.

Iraqi authorities issued arrest warrants for both brothers in October 2015 after an investigation of bribes and illegal benefits. The case involved alleged kickbacks connected to rice purchases for Iraq’s national food-ration system. 

In November 2018, Abdulkarim was convicted of graft and sentenced to seven years in prison. He is living in Iraqi Kurdistan now, his brother said.

Kasnazan, whose case is still open, according to Iraq’s judiciary, said the allegations against his family were “fabricated” by political enemies. 

He now lives in exile in Amman, in a palatial home amid marble, crystal and oil paintings. His furniture is leafed in gold; angel figures perch on the rims of giant vases. 

When particularly reverent guests arrive, he lets them bow and kiss him on the feet, according to a video he shared with The Post.

A hard-line position on Iran

Trump’s arrival in the White House shifted the U.S. government’s view of Iran closer to Kasnazan’s. He was in favor of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. He supports the approach of Bolton, who advocates for regime change in Iran.

Kasnazan said that he opposes a full U.S. invasion and that he wants “surgical U.S. military strikes” against Iranian military and intelligence installations. 

“You ask why would we want war, but in fact we are not in peace — the violence against Sunnis in Iraq has never stopped,” Kasnazan said in an interview. “Any retreat from Bolton’s policy on Iran will lead to a breaking down of America’s reputation in front of the world.”

He shared with The Post copies of letters he sent to Bolton and Pompeo last summer in which he praised the U.S. government’s hard-line approach toward Iran and offered policy recommendations.

In the letters, Kasnazan wrote that he was “very encouraged by President Donald Trump’s objectives to stop Iranian aggression and expansion in the region.”

A spokesman for Bolton declined to comment. A State Department spokesman said the department was not aware of the letters.

During Trump’s time in office, Kasnazan said he has met with State Department officials on various occasions, as well as visited think tanks to advocate for his position against Iran. 

During his long stay at the Trump hotel in November and December, Kasnazan said, he saw members of Trump’s family at the property, as well as Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and Fox News Channel personalities. But he said that he didn’t speak with them and that he never saw the president. 

While in town, Kasnazan attended a retirement party for Dahouk, the State Department adviser. 

Dahouk described Kasnazan as an influential figure who has met with officials from the Near Eastern Affairs and policy planning bureaus.

“He had an audience, and many concerned officials valued his perspective,” Dahouk said. “His agenda was to provide an alternate source of atmospherics about what’s going on in Iraq from a person who has many devoted followers on the ground.”

Whether Kasnazan’s networking had any effect on the administration is unknown. But the sheikh said he feels encouraged by the Trump administration’s approach to his home region.

His spokesman said he plans to return to Washington soon — although he hasn’t yet chosen a hotel. 

Luck reported from Amman. Miriam Berger in Amman, Mustafa Salim in Baghdad, and Jonathan O’Connell, Julie Tate and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.