Kurds turn to Capitol Hill to open up travel, get more aid

One of America’s most reliable allies in the Iraq war, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has turned to Congress for help in opening up northern Iraq to more investment and travel.

KRG representatives have been working with lawmakers to soften the State Department travel advisory for Iraq to acknowledge Kurdistan’s relative safety. They argue that such a move would recognize the area’s greater stability and lead to more American involvement.

Qubad Talabani, the KRG’s representative to the U.S., said his government turned to Congress after receiving a “lukewarm, if not cold reception” from State Department officials to a formal request to change the travel advisory. Consequently, a “Dear Colleague” letter advocating the KRG’s position has circulated Capitol Hill and attracted 11 signatories so far.

“We are working this great democratic system,” said Talabani of the effort. The travel advisory “is negatively affecting [U.S.] policy in Iraq.”

A number of countries, including Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom, have already toned down their own travel warnings for Kurdistan.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Hill, Talabani described what Kurdistan has undertaken this year with Congress and emphasized Kurdish ties to the U.S.

“We strongly believe that America has a solid partner in the heart of the Islamic Middle East,” said Talabani, the son of Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani. “It’s the Kurds.”

The Kurds’ success has led to growing talk of independence from Iraq, but Talabani emphasized that his office is not an embassy and that the KRG supports keeping the country intact.

“We remain committed to a federal democracy in Iraq, and ‘federal’ is the key here,” said Talabani. “But we do have a responsibility to protect the lives of the 4 million-plus people who live in the Kurdistan region.”

The Kurds got a boost Thursday when the Senate passed a non-binding amendment to the defense authorization bill that called for a federalist, decentralized Iraq. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a longtime advocate of a “soft partition” of the country, was the author of the measure.

There is also a broader effort to build a Kurdish Congressional Caucus in Congress, which Talabani is helping to lead.

Along with KRG’s liaison office, much of the government’s outreach to Capitol Hill is being conducted through lobbying firms, such as the American Business Development Group and Barbour Griffith & Rogers.

Chief congressional allies so far include Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who co-authored the travel advisory letter. Berman has championed Kurdistan since the 1980s and called for sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime after its chemical-weapons attacks on the Kurdish people in 1988.

“My fear is that the [current] travel advisory makes [Kurdistan] look like Basra and Baghdad. I thought it made sense for the State Department to consider this,” said Berman.

In the letter, Berman and Shays write that the travel warning does not “represent the conditions on the ground,” and note that no Westerner has been harmed by hostile action in the region since the Iraq war began in 2003.

Talabani says changing the travel advisory would also help attract more American businesses to the region. In addition, the office is working on creating an American-Kurdish Business Council to help facilitate more U.S. investment.

“We have a lot of foreign companies investing in Kurdistan today. Very few of them are American,” he said.

Yet one of the KRG’s recent business successes — an oil exploration deal with Hunt Oil — has attracted the unwarranted attention of Capitol Hill. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has called for an investigation into the agreement because CEO Ray Hunt, a major Republican campaign donor, is close with Bush administration officials. 

“No rules have been bent to get an American firm in. It has been a very transparent process,” said Talabani.

Talabani also is trying to secure more reconstruction aid for Kurdistan. Six hundred forty-seven million dollars in U.S. funds for reconstruction have been appropriated to the Kurdish region, according to Baghdad’s U.S. Embassy. Twenty-one billion dollars have been slated for Iraq’s reconstruction overall.

“On the face of it, it seems they are not getting their fair share of the reconstruction monies,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.). Rothman will propose language in the House’s war supplemental appropriations bill that calls for more reconstruction funds to go to Kurdistan.

The KRG has also tried to bring Congress to Kurdistan by ferrying more and more congressional delegations to the region.

“We didn’t have to wear our helmets or our armor. That’s the only place [in Iraq] we didn’t, except for the shower,” joked Sen. Ben Nelson. The Nebraska Democrat, along with three other senators, recently stopped by Erbil after traveling to Baghdad.  

Part of the KRG’s message to Capitol Hill is to consider the region as part of a redeployment strategy as U.S. soldiers leave Iraq. Calls for a quick withdrawal are a particular worry for Talabani.

“We need to keep drumming this beat: that’s in your interests to keep forces in Kurdistan and it is ultimately in our interests for you to do so,” he said.