Business & Lobbying

Iraq’s lobbyists mobilized after travel ban, documents reveal


Lobbyists for the Iraqi government were in contact with Trump administration officials and lawmakers ahead of the decision to remove the country from the travel ban, new documents filed with the Justice Department show.

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a high-powered law and lobby firm, sent letters to senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, requesting sit-down meetings.

{mosads}The letters, dated between Feb. 9 and Feb. 13, came about two weeks after President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, from entering the United States.

The lobbyists asked U.S. officials to have introductory meetings with Iraq’s new ambassador, Fareed Yasseen, who assumed the post in January, and Naufel Alhassan, the deputy chief of staff to Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

“I can confirm that [Yasseen and Alhassan] are strong advocates of U.S. interests within Iraq and understand the efforts you have undertaken to ensure America’s priorities in the region,” many of the letters sent to officials read. 

“Both Alhassan and Ambassador Yasseen were supporters of Prime Minister Abadi’s decision to take no reciprocal action against the President’s Executive Order on immigration, despite significant pressure from the Iraq parliament and citizenry to do so,” the letters continued.

The letters came around the time of a call between Trump and al-Abadi on Feb. 9, and before a meeting between the prime minister and Vice President Pence and others at the Munich Security Conference.

During Trump’s call with al-Abadi, the president said he wanted “to underscore the support of the United States for the Iraqi people in our shared fight against the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS].” 

Iraq hired Brownstein before Trump’s inauguration to work on “issues related to Iraq, immigration, defense, economics, and overall foreign policy,” disclosure forms say. 

The contract, worth $40,000 per month, runs from Jan. 15 to April 15.

Al Mottur, a shareholder at Brownstein, said Iraqi officials were the ones who persuaded the Trump administration to change course on the travel policy.

“The overwhelming majority of the successful effort to have them removed was conducted by the country of Iraq itself,” Mottur said. “We’d love to take credit, but that’s a disservice to the work that the government of Iraq did in this space.”

Diplomats from Iraq and its prime minister had a series of meetings with high-level Trump administration officials at the Munich Security Conference in Germany last month, in addition to subsequent conversations in other venues. 

Mattis, for example, made an unannounced visit to Iraq near the end of last month. Both he and other Trump officials, including national security adviser H. R. McMaster, have contacts in the country dating back to their time in the military. Tillerson also has ties to officials in Iraq, including the prime minister, from his time as the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.

“There appeared to be sufficient consensus among the national security team and senior officials coming out of these meetings that the administration chose to remove them from the list,” Mottur said.

The U.S. officials who received letters from R. James Nicholson, a senior counsel at Brownstein, include Tillerson, Mattis, Pence, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Tom Bossert, an assistant to Trump for homeland security and counterterrorism.

Many of the letters include identical text, with only some personal touches added.

Former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn received a letter from Nicholson on Feb. 9. Flynn had met with Yasseen a week before, the letter notes. Flynn has since resigned following a controversy over communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

On Capitol Hill, the lobbyists for Iraq requested meetings with the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed (R.I.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the committee.

“Dr. Naufel is having a series of meetings with administration officials and congressional leadership in order to provide insights on the current challenges in Iraq as well as progress being made,” Nicholson wrote to the senators, referring to al-Abadi’s deputy chief of staff, whom he refers to as “Abadi’s right hand.”

While Iraqi officials have had meetings with top Washington officials, it’s unclear how many stem from the letters.

On Jan. 27, Trump signed the initial executive order temporarily prohibiting citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from coming to the United States. 

Several courts blocked the order’s implementation.

Following the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress, reports surfaced that Iraq would be removed from the list, citing urging from the State Department and the Pentagon. Iraq has been a key ally in the region in fighting ISIS, and many Iraqis risked their lives to serve as translators for U.S. soldiers in post-9/11 military operations.

On Monday, the White House issued a revised order with several tweaks, including removing Iraq from the list of banned countries.

The removal sends a “positive message” about U.S.-Iraq relations moving forward, said Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi, according to The Associated Press, adding that it illustrates a “real partnership” between the two countries.

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