Prospects abound among Iraqi Kurds
By Sam Dagher
of the former American officials turned businessmen
in Iraqi Kurdistan
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Shortly after leaving his
job last year as the United States ambassador to the
United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad started
negotiations with Iraqi Kurdish leaders to become a
His stint as adviser to the semiautonomous Kurdistan
region’s board of investment lasted about seven
months. In May Mr. Khalilzad, who also served as
ambassador to Iraq, became a board member of RAK
Petroleum, an oil and gas investment company based
in the Persian Gulf Arab emirate of Ras al-Khaimah.
RAK is a significant shareholder in Norway’s DNO, a
major oil producer in the Kurdish region that has
been mired in controversy for its involvement in a
deal that granted an interest in its oil field to
the former American diplomat Peter W. Galbraith for
help in negotiating the contract with the Kurds.
Last month DNO
Khalilzad to its board.
A housing complex for Western workers in Erbil, in
Iraq’s Kurdistan region. NY Times Photo
As America winds down
its war effort in Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad is among a
growing list of former American diplomats and
military officials now chasing business
opportunities in the oil-rich Kurdish region or
acting as advisers to its government. Some visit
regularly, while others call the region and its
booming capital, Erbil, home. Kurds treat them like
The Kurdish region may be the only place in Iraq
where Americans are still embraced as liberators.
The authorities boast that no Americans have ever
been attacked in a place that has enjoyed relative
Critics say these former officials are cashing in on
a costly and contentious war they played a role in.
The way they see it, though, they have every right
to fulfill the American dream after having left
their government posts. At any rate, business and
politics are inseparable in a region dominated by
two governing parties and families, who have been
accused of autocratic rule and corruption. Many of
the former American officials turned businessmen
have also become staunch advocates of the Kurdish
cause, including the right of statehood, which
clashes with America’s stated policy of preserving
Iraq’s unity and being at equal distance from all
The Kurds in turn have leveraged their American
connections, which in some cases go back decades,
into an impressive lobbying and public relations
machine in Washington.
The Kurdish region ranks among the top 10 buyers of
lobbying services in the United States, according to
the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, a joint
project of ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation.
“They love these consultants here,” said Denise Natali,
an American academic and
author based in the region’s other main city of
Sulaimaniyah. “It brings them attention, recognition
Ms. Natali herself has advised corporations like
America’s Hunt Oil, which was among dozens of
foreign oil companies awarded concessions in the
Kurdish region in defiance of the central government
Mr. Khalilzad’s firm, Khalilzad Associates,
describes itself as serving “clients at the nexus of
commerce and public policies,” and is advising
businesses seeking opportunities in Afghanistan and
He said he ended his advisory contract with the
Kurdish government after his company started
advising “multinational corporations” investing in
the Kurdish region and Iraq.
“We felt it created a possible conflict of interest
to represent both sides,” he said.
He said he was trying to find a way to pay rent on
an apartment in Erbil provided to him free by the
Kurdish authorities as part of his contract. The
region’s Oil Ministry owns the apartment.
Mr. Khalilzad made several high-profile appearances
last year while on contract for the Kurds. They
included an election rally for the region’s powerful
president. Massoud Barzani.
Mr. Khalilzad, along with most of the region’s top
leaders, sits on the board of regents of the
American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah.
John Agresto, who served as a senior adviser for
higher education under America’s post-invasion
Coalition Provisional Authority, helped found the
university with the strong backing of Barham Salih,
the region’s current prime minister.
Mr. Agresto said he had accomplished in the Kurdish
region what he had failed to do in the rest of Iraq,
namely introduce American-style liberal arts
“The American brand is much more welcome here,” Mr.
Agresto said. “This is probably the last place in
the whole world where George Bush could still win an
The majority of Kurds are grateful for the
American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein’s
government and America’s support of the no-flight
zone in the 1990s that helped them establish their
present autonomy. Thousands of foreigners, including
many Americans, now live and work in the Kurdish
region, enjoying comforts that are rare in the rest
of the country.
“We love them,” Haro Ahmed gushes about Americans.
His family owns a real estate conglomerate, whose
assets include a sprawling mall in Erbil that would
not be out of place anywhere in suburban America.
Mr. Ahmed has reserved space in the mall for several
American fast-food chains and says he is in talks
with Marriott to build a hotel and golf course
Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who
briefly headed the reconstruction effort in Iraq
after the invasion, says that it is precisely this
pro-American attitude, coupled with the region’s oil
wealth and strategic location between Iran, Syria
and Turkey, that makes Kurds the perfect partner in
“Why we do not wrap our arms around them, I do not
understand,” General Garner said.
He said he did free consulting for the Kurds. But he
also sits on the advisory board of Vast Exploration,
a Calgary-based company prospecting for oil in an
area of the region known as Qara Dagh, where
drilling started in May.
On the seventh anniversary of Mr. Hussein’s fall, in
April, General Garner flew to the Kurdish region on
a chartered plane accompanied by oil analysts and
executives. The visit included meetings with Kurdish
leaders and a camping trip to Qara Dagh.
In contrast to the close relationship with their
American friends, most of them Bush-era officials,
Kurdish leaders have grown impatient with the Obama
its mounting pressure on Kurds to make concessions
in a continuing dispute with Baghdad over internal
borders and the sharing of oil and gas resources.
“Kurdish officials are frustrated with us,” said one
senior American diplomat, speaking on the condition
of anonymity under diplomatic ground rules.
“They say, ‘The minute you turn your back, Baghdad
will stab you.’ ”
Harry J. Schute Jr., a former Army colonel who
commanded a civil affairs battalion in northern Iraq
after the invasion and later became the Coalition
Provisional Authority’s chief of staff in the north,
says the Kurdistan region is the “poster child” for
what America has been trying to accomplish in the
rest of Iraq.
“There are not a lot of places in the Middle East
where they are saying ‘pick us, we want to be your
friends,’ ” Mr. Schute said.
He now runs a security consulting practice in Erbil
and sits on the board of Vigilance, a joint venture
between American and British security contractors
and the Kurdish government itself.
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