An out-of-work Iraqi politician who leads a 4,000-man private militia is deepening his ties to Washington in an attempt to remake the Obama administration’s foreign policy toward Iraq.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, who was booted out of office as governor of Iraq’s northern Nineveh province last year, in February signed a six-month, $90,000 contract with a lobbyist to represent the Sunni militia that he controls.
“Everybody says that there are no Sunni fighters ready to fight in Iraq. Well, that’s a lie,” said Robert Kelley, the lawyer who signed on to lobby for Nujaifi’s National Mobilization Force. Kelley spent two years as a staffer at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and also previously worked on Capitol Hill.
“The governor has 4,000 fighters right outside of Mosul.”
The contract is just the latest example of Sunni leaders turning to K Street to win over hearts and minds in Washington amid skepticism that the central government in Baghdad can overcome sectarian divisions and fight ISIS.
Like other Sunni leaders, Nujaifi is pushing the U.S. to shifts its focus away from the Iraqi government and toward regional and tribal leaders throughout the country.
“They’re using the anti-ISIS fight as a means with which to strengthen their argument,” said Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
The strategy builds on “the widespread belief here in town that the only way to defeat ISIS is to raise a Sunni force,” Stein added, “and the only thing that’s stopping the raising of the Sunni force is sectarianism and Shia [governance] in Baghdad that’s not helping them.”
Deep sectarian divisions have stunted Iraq’s growth in the years since the U.S.-led coalition forced Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Many in the country’s minority Sunni population claim that they have been abandoned by the central government in Baghdad, which has grown closer to Shiite-led Iran.
That split, and what critics decry as ineffective bureaucracy in Baghdad, has led to a power vacuum in which ISIS can thrive.
“Islamic State is a symptom. It is not a cause,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council last week.
“A lot of the residents [in Mosul], you know, looked askance at Baghdad, looked askance at the Kurdish region, and that gave them just enough of a crevice to hang on,” he added. “Well, those crevices have now become canyons.”
Some Sunni Iraqis, claiming that Baghdad has been deaf to their pleas, have gone straight to Washington for help.
Hiring lobbyists “is a direct statement on what we would call the mainstream Iraqi Sunni perspective that they can’t work with Baghdad,” said Nicholas Heras, a research associate in the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East security program.
Nujaifi previously paid a consultant firm $300,000 over three months of work in 2014, and made a blitz through the Washington’s major foreign policy circles last year.
He isn’t alone.
A handful of Sunni tribal leaders have also attempted to make inroads in the U.S. by hiring K Street firms to push their message.
But Nujaifi’s effort is especially notable, given his history in government and the fact that his brother, Osama, is Iraq’s former vice president and parliament speaker.
“They’re like the Bushes of Mosul,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Osama is George Bush and Atheel Nujaifi is Jeb Bush.”
Nujaifi wants assistance from the U.S. to go after ISIS, which took control of Mosul in 2014, months before Nujaifi was booted from office. Intransigence has clogged the gears in Baghdad, Nujaifi insists, so Washington needs to step in.
In essence, Nujaifi’s plan is for a redux of the “Sunni Awakening” of 2006 and 2007, when Sunni Iraqis — largely in Anbar province — switched sides to fight alongside the United States.
“Outside forces will not be supported by the people of Mosul,” Nujaifi wrote in a January letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn McCainSenate takes up NATO membership for Montenegro A great military requires greater spending than Trump has proposed Cheney: Russian election interference could be ‘act of war’ MORE (R-Ariz.).
National Mobilization fighters, he added, “are from Mosul” and the surrounding Nineveh province and “are crucial to the liberation of Mosul.”
But the fight against ISIS is just a means to an end, he has made clear.
“You may ask what is our vision after liberation?” Nujaifi asked in a speech at the Brookings Institution last spring. “We need autonomy as a part of a strong federal Iraq.”
The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government — which first hired Washington lobbyists in 2006 — should be a “model” for his people, he added.
“They can solve their problems inside their autonomy,” he said. “I think we can solve our problems.”
To some extent, the narrative has taken root.
In a speech outlining her plan to fight ISIS last year, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump tweets: 'Trump Russia story is a hoax' Path to 60 narrows for Trump pick Overnight Cybersecurity: New questions for House Intel chair over WH visit | Cyber war debate heats up | Firm finds security flaws in 'panic buttons' MORE called for the U.S. to “lay the foundation for a second Sunni Awakening.”
Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's Labor pick Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE’s presidential campaign calls for Baghdad to “increase Sunni inclusion and autonomy for the provinces,” and to “provide arms directly to Sunni tribal and Kurdish forces if Baghdad fails to support them.”
Perhaps most importantly, this year’s defense policy law allows the administration to provide arms to Sunni forces and Kurdish peshmerga if it determines that the government in Baghdad hasn’t done enough to unify the country and integrate minority groups. The law ordered the Obama administration to file a report on whether Baghdad has met its goals by March 24.
Despite the apparent gains by Sunnis, critics say the Obama administration has been slow to meet the moment.
“The Obama White House and the State Department are completely supportive of … the government in Baghdad,” said Kelley, the foreign lobbyist. “So the result is that there is no support for the fighters that the governor has right outside Mosul.”
Not everyone is as confident in the effort.
While Nujaifi and others claim to support a unified Iraq — albeit with a more pronounced federalism — some worry that the effort is purely a vanity project that will only split the country into pieces.
“To me, it just looks like somebody who got booted out of office trying to use their money and foreign connections to make themselves relevant in the future,” said Knights.
“The only people who are really getting any benefit out of this are the lobbyists themselves.”
Megan Wilson contributed.