The Scion
Kurdistan's man in Washington
By Laura Rozen
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Qubad Talabani is one of those cultural anomalies who somehow seem like natural creatures of Washington. Few twenty-nine-year-olds are trusted to serve as the top envoy of a foreign entity to the United States, as Talabani—the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani—is by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. But Talabani—slim, goateed, English-accented, a onetime Italian-car mechanic with an American wife—handles his duties with aplomb, rushing around town in subtle suits to meet with policy makers and power brokers. His most distinctive attribute may be that he represents perhaps the sole triumph to emerge from postwar Iraq: a relatively peaceful region free of foreign troops, eager for American protection and open for business.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%On a sunny April afternoon, I meet Talabani at the KRG’s simple second-floor I Street offices, two blocks from the White House. Inside, the plain white walls are adorned with Ottoman-style silver filigreed decorations, colorful woven saddlebags, and Kurdish paintings. On a side table in the foyer sits a photograph of Talabani père with President Bush in the Oval Office.

As the photograph suggests, the Kurds currently find their interests closely aligned with those of the Bush administration. They want American troops to stay in Iraq and fear that any near-term drawdown would trigger greater instability. These days, Talabani is having little trouble selling a simple message around town: “Kurdistan is a success story,” he explains to me. “Kurdistan is stable, prosperous, economically viable ... We’ve built a strong civil society in the heart of the Islamic Middle East, surrounded by tough neighbors.” He adds—and here comes the pitch: “But we can’t succeed without the support of the world’s only superpower.”

Talabani is hardly the first cosmopolitan, culturally dexterous representative of a foreign interest to find his cause in vogue in the halls of American government. The Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi was also a charismatic, effective Washington advocate, who systematically persuaded influential constituencies, and ultimately the Bush administration, to lend the U.S. Army to his longtime struggle against Saddam Hussein. But Qubad is different. He’s of a younger generation, more pragmatic than idealistic, less enmeshed in neoconservative Republican politics and with less of the seductive con-man qualities of the old master. “We have friends on the Democratic and Republican sides,” Talabani says. “It is not our game to play American politics. Chalabi did that and failed. We are not taking sides.”

Yet although the soft-spoken Talabani is a far less polarizing figure than Chalabi, his intentions are complex. On the one hand, Kurdish political leaders are currently the glue in the American project to hold a unitary Iraq together. On the other hand, many of the positions Talabani advocates in Washington are feared by non-Kurdish Iraqis, and Iraq’s neighbors, as being incremental steps toward Kurdish secession. For instance, foremost on Talabani’s agenda at the moment is Kirkuk, the ethnically mixed city that Kurds consider their Jerusalem. Talabani is pushing the U.S. government hard to honor a provision in the Iraqi constitution calling for a referendum on the city’s status before the end of the year. Iraqi non-Kurds and Turkey oppose the referendum fiercely, and experts warn that both parties could react violently should the city be placed under Kurdish control. In April, the nonpartisan International Crisis Group recommended the referendum be postponed to avoid “the risk of an explosion.” The question that surrounds Talabani and the Kurds is whether their current support for U.S. efforts in Iraq is simply a calculated, tactical move in a long-term play for greater independence.

Qubad Talabani hails from Kurdish political aristocracy. His maternal grandfather, Ibrahim Ahmad, was the first chairman of the ur Iraqi Kurdish political party, the Kurdish Democratic Party. Qubad’s father, Jalal, the former peshmerga commander turned statesman, is the longtime head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and became president of Iraq in 2005. He is known as the grand old man of the Kurdish political movement and for having what former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, a longtime advocate of the Iraqi Kurds, has described as a “large appetite for knowledge and for food.”

Qubad was raised in exile in England by his maternal grandparents, in a home filled with Kurdish intellectuals and political activists. “We were always around politics, there were always meetings in the house ... [in] smoke-filled rooms,” he told me. However, Talabani spent much of his teens avoiding the pull of Kurdish politics, instead working as a mechanic on Italian cars. Then, seven years ago, after graduating from Britain’s Surrey University with a degree in automotive engineering, he decided that he wasn’t so interested in working in the automotive industry.

So in 2000, he came to Washington. First, he worked in the PUK’s small Capitol Hill–area offices, then headed by Barham Salih, who is now Iraq’s deputy prime minister. Later, he was made the head of the PUK office. And last year, in an agreement between the two main Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the KDP and the PUK, he became the Washington face of the entire Kurdistan Regional Government. Along the way, the young diplomat married the State Department’s Iraq Desk officer. (“At our wedding,” Talabani remarks mischievously, “Peter Galbraith said, ‘When I told you to get close to the State Department, I did not mean to get that close.’ ”)

The Kurdish relationship with Washington hasn’t always been so cordial. When the Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein in 1988, the United States did nothing. “There was nobody standing up for them, almost nobody,” says Galbraith. When Jalal Talabani visited the State Department on his first trip to Washington in April 1988, Galbraith describes, it provoked such a vociferous reaction from Turkey and Iraq that Kurdish leaders were banned until 1991 from returning.

The United States’ views slowly changed, largely thanks to the efforts of Dr. Najmaldin Karim, a Kurdish physician who tended to Ronald Reagan at George Washington Hospital after he was shot by an assassin. Over the course of the 1990s, Karim is credited with single-handedly creating D.C.’s Kurdish lobby. More recently, as the situation has deteriorated in Iraq, the Kurds have found themselves increasingly popular here. “Quite frankly, the Kurds are the element that is keeping Iraq together,” says a former Coalition Provisional Authority official.

But Washington’s attention—and money—tends to be consumed by the less peaceful regions of Iraq. Talabani and his compatriots, however, have learned that there’s no geopolitical argument that can’t be sharpened by a few million dollars in high-powered lobbying. Since 2004, the KRG has employed the Bush White House–connected lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers, signing up two top-dollar partners who know their way around the West Wing: Ed Rogers, a former deputy assistant to the president in the Bush I White House, and Robert Blackwill, a former National Security Council envoy on Iraq for the current Bush administration. The bill has run well over a million dollars so far, covering the bases at the Defense Department, the State Department, Treasury, the White House, the National Security Council, the House, and the Senate.

These lobbying efforts have already been credited with securing the Kurds a larger share of U.S. aid. “I love this town,” Talabani tells me over lunch at an art gallery café near his office. “If you can’t get in the door, you go through the window. If that’s shut, you go through the chimney; if that’s blocked, you sneak into the basement.” (Later, I realize that he gave a similar quote to the Washington Post.) In the process, Talabani has gained a reputation as a skilled advocate for his cause. “Qubad is generally recognized as an artful, convincing representative of the Kurdish Regional Government,” says the former CPA official. “He understands Washington, D.C., quite well ... Given the constraints of resources and the fact that the U.S. is so heavily focused on Iraq, the KRG has done a rather good job.”

Talabani is hoping to achieve similar successes on the issue of Kirkuk. The city was “Arabized” under Saddam Hussein, and also has a significant ethnic Turkish Turkoman population. “Kirkuk is the symbol of our tragedy and oppression,” says Talabani. It also sits on lots of oil and natural gas. As a result, the referendum— which is expected to transfer the city to Kurdish control if held—is fiercely opposed by Iraqi non-Kurds, as well as by Turkey, which considers itself the protector of the Turkoman minority and fears the emergence of an economically empowered Kurdistan on its border.

Given the threat of unrest in the one part of Iraq that is relatively stable, the State Department seems inclined to kick this issue down the road. But Talabani is not ready to cede the argument yet. For instance, although he does not openly suggest a quid pro quo, he hints that if the referendum is delayed, the Kurds may not be inclined to support a law ensuring central government control and revenue sharing of Iraq’s oil wealth, which Washington considers critical to Iraq’s political reconciliation. At least some Iraq watchers believe that Talabani may yet get his way. “The U.S. has found it very hard to go against stuff in the [Iraqi] constitution,” said Patrick Clawson, a Middle East expert and deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I am not as convinced that this [referendum] can be easily postponed.”

The Kurdish rumor mill has it that Jalal Talabani may soon wish to recall Qubad to Kurdistan to groom him for a political future there. Qubad was equal parts diplomat and good soldier when asked about such plans: “Not really being groomed,” he e-mails after our interview. “As for ever going back to Kurdistan, my roots are there, and my cause is there, so I can imagine living/working there at some point.” In the meantime, his lobbying efforts on Kirkuk may help determine whether the Kurdistan he returns to is at war or at peace.

   

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Laura Rozen is a national security correspondent for the Washington Monthly.  
 
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