Taken at face value, the growing calls for the partition of Iraq and the establishment of an independent Sunni Arab state appear to be uncoordinated. But the recent release of a think tank paper that advocates for Iraq’s break up inadvertently reveals how discredited Iraqi politicians and millionaire businessmen are teaming up with DC lobbyists to execute a highly coordinated campaign to make the case for a three-state solution in Iraq.
On the eve of the start of the Mosul offensive, the Hudson Institute released a white paper making the case for why the United States should support the establishment of an autonomous Sunni region in Iraq that would “potentially [lead] in the long-term to an outright independent state.” The paper entitled ‘West Iraq: the search for leaders and leverage’ was primarily authored by Michael Pregent, a former U.S. military intelligence officer who served in Mosul and worked closely with Sunni tribes. Pregent describes how an Iraq partitioned into three states would allow a Sunni statelet to emerge that incorporates the predominantly Sunni provinces of Anbar, Salahadin, Mosul and parts of Diyala and Kirkuk. It would serve U.S. interests, he argues, by both countering Iranian influence and undermining Russian control over Eurasian energy markets in Europe (by developing the natural gas field of Akkas in Anbar).
Washington Times reporter Guy Taylor covered the release of the report, and cited comments from a Washington-based advocacy group known as the Committee to Destroy ISIS, which issued a press release to journalists in support of the report, and circulated a map of how a partitioned Iraq would look like. Taylor also interviewed Munqith al-Dagher, described as a pollster and “influential Iraqi analyst” who questioned the ability of the Iraqi government to counter the ideology of Daesh.
A closer look at Hudson’s report shows some curious connections with both the Committee to Destroy ISIS and Munqith al-Dagher. Hudson openly acknowledge at the end of the report that the Committee to Destroy ISIS “helped defray expenses incurred during the preparation of this study”. The largely unknown group’s website is particularly light on detail, with no information on how the group was set up and who runs it. “The time has come for autonomy for West Iraq,” they declare.
The group is run by Sam Patten. In a piece he penned for Breitbart in July this year, Patten is described as the Committee’s executive director. He outlines a plan to defeat ISIS “for real” by mobilizing local elements on the ground to take on the transnational terrorists. “People on the ground in Fallujah, in Ramadi, and in Mosul need to have a reason to destroy ISIS, and a return to control by the Baghdad government is just another nightmare for these folks,” he writes. He lambasts what he describes as “sectarian control” of Sunni provinces by the central government and suggests that an alternative model of self-rule would ensure that American sacrifices in that region would not be squandered.
Patten is no stranger to the DC lobbying scene. A former state department advisor who served in Iraq, his most recent encounter with Iraqi politics saw him hired by former deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq in 2014 to oversee his coalition’s election campaign. He was featured in a Washington Post piece in April 2014 that showcased Patten’s work in the Amman-based office belonging to Mutlaq. U.S. Department of Justice records show that he was paid a $20,000 monthly retainer for “full-time campaign management support to [Al-Arabiya Movement]” involving “day-to-day supervision of turn-key campaign operations”. In the end, Mutlaq’s bloc brought home mediocre results, winning just one parliamentary seat in Baghdad and a total of 10 seats nationwide.
All of this is relevant because a closer inspection of the signed contract between Patten and Al-Arabiya Movement reveals that the latter’s signatory is none other than Iraqi pollster Munqith al-Dagher, who was Mutlaq’s campaign manager.
The Dagher connection is illuminating because it adds an Iraqi political layer to the coordinated effort between Hudson and the Committee to Destroy ISIS to promote the notion of an independent Sunni state.
There is however a clear attempt to conceal Dagher’s involvement in the Hudson study. The Washington Times piece simply refers to him as an analyst and political adviser who was visiting Washington. Hudson’s report references a poll conducted by Dagher in 2013-14 that claims to show 97% of Sunnis in Iraq consider ISIS to be a terrorist organization. But Dagher’s name is nowhere to be found. Instead, the survey (not available online) is obscurely referenced as “IIA SS Poll, 2013-2014”. Furthermore, Dagher had conducted an updated poll in 2015 that is readily available online because he presented his findings on several occasions in the U.S., including at a public event in December 2015 when he was hosted by the Washington Institute. On a side note, Dagher’s 2015 poll is rather dubious, since he claims to have surveyed residents living in areas occupied by Daesh including Mosul. The results are equally questionable. Dagher tries to make the case that people are increasingly satisfied with life under the Islamic State. His results show that 39% of respondents wanted Daesh to stay in Mosul, and 72% felt the central government did not represent them.
At this point it is worth delving a little deeper into Dagher’s political views. He has made numerous appearances at DC think tanks, and is always introduced as a Sunni analyst and pollster. Hosted by Freedom House only two weeks after the fall of Mosul, Dagher claimed that the threat of ISIS was overblown, telling the Iraqi TV channel al-Tagheer after the event:
“The main message I’d like to convey to the American people and the U.S. administration is what is happening in Iraq is not a terrorist onslaught and the role of Daesh in Iraq has been greatly exaggerated, and in a deliberate way, so that the central government can benefit in order to bring foreign forces back to Iraq.”
Dagher was later hosted by Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in March 2015.
With a clear connection established between Dagher, Patten and Pregent, the next question is who is funding the Committee to Defeat ISIS?
The most prominent financier for advocates of an autonomous Sunni region is the Dubai-based Iraqi businessman Khamees Al-Khanjar. Over the past two years, Khanjar has been making the rounds in Western and Arab capitals in a bid to garner support for a platform that he heads known as the ‘Arab Project in Iraq’. A December 2015 interview with the Associated Press featured Khanjar his Dubai villa alongside fellow Fallujah politician and former finance minister Rafi Eissawi and former governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi. They announced their intention to set up a Sunni Arab representation office in Washington that could bypass Baghdad and garner external backing for an autonomous Sunni region. “The truth is IS and the Shiite militias … are two sides of the same coin,” declared al-Khanjar. “The terrorism that the Shiite militias are spreading may even be worse than what IS is doing.”
True to his word, in the winter of 2015, Khanjar set up the Washington-based Office for Arab-Sunni Representation in Iraq (OASRI). Two months earlier, Adalid Business Consulting, a Dubai-based paper company with no official connection to Khanjar, signed a $65,000 per month contract with strategic communications firm Glover Park Group to provide “reputational and political support on communications and government affairs matters for the province of Anbar”. While there is no mention of Khanjar on the contract, a June 2016 profile of him by the Reuters correspondent Ned Parker confirmed that Khanjar was behind the deal. Subsequent records from Glover Park made available on the Department of Justice website also show 6 email exchanges between February and June with Parker regarding “Sunnis in Iraq” and “travel to Kurdistan”, where the interview with Khanjar was conducted. These records also confirm that dozens of emails were sent by Glover Park lobbyists to American journalists and members of Congress “on behalf of OASRI”.
While there are no official ties between Patten’s Committee to Destroy ISIS and Khanjar’s OASRI, their messaging is indistinguishable. And since Patten’s advocacy is clearly being done at the behest of an Iraqi entity, the failure to register his work with the Department of Justice would be considered a breach of U.S. federal law.
The broader regional dimension of these lobbying efforts is also worth considering. Khanjar’s close relations with many of Iraq’s neighbors are well known, and there are some obvious signs that he is coordinating his efforts with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. “We currently don’t need any financial help, although if we did and we asked the Arab countries for it, I’m sure they would be more than willing to help,” he said in the AP interview. “We need military and political backing once our project begins,” he added.
After the controversial JASTA bill was passed in Congress in September 2016, giving Americans the right to take legal action against Saudi Arabia over the attacks of 9/11, the Kingdom was quick to add Glover Park to its long list of paid consultants. Shortly after, Khanjar’s Arab Project issued a statement condemning the move by Congress and announced that it would reciprocate by calling on Iraq’s parliament to sue the US government over the occupation in Iraq. While there is little reason to take Khanjar’s threat seriously, the incident sheds light on the degree of coordination between Khanjar and Saudi lobbyists.
A second point of interest occurred last month, when Sunni tribal sheikhs under the banner of the Arab Project organized a rally in Erbil to condemn the Iraqi government and parliament over their opposition to Turkey’s military presence in Bashiqa. The organizers read out a statement calling in support of Turkish training and arms while praising Masoud Barzani and the Peshmerga for their support of the people of Mosul. It was Barzani who initially invited the Turkish troops across the border and facilitated their movements across KRG territory. Khanjar’s rally was attended by representatives from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the event descended into chaos when Sunni civil society activists objected to the group’s statement and accused them of supporting ISIS.
Much like the shared interest of Khanjar and Saudi Arabia for greater autonomy in Western Iraq, many Kurds also see this as mutually beneficial. As the Hudson Institute paper explains, “a separation of another autonomous region from Baghdad would strengthen the Kurdish case against remaining at the mercy of a Baghdad that consistently subverts the Kurds’ long-term interests.”
Sunni and Kurdish calls for greater autonomy are thus two sides of the same coin. Sam Patten is familiar with this, having worked with the KDP in 2005-6, advising them on election campaigning. “As the Kurdish peshmerga take the lead in the fight for Mosul, it becomes clearer still that an independent Kurdistan will one day be a reality,” read the Committee to Destroy ISIS press release.
The manner in which the Hudson Institute’s proposal for Sunni self-rule was produced and publicized – with its ties to politicized advocacy groups, shady foreign businessmen and discredited politicians – reignites the debate over the undue influence that foreign actors exert over supposedly independent think tanks. In a recent study on financial disclosures, Hudson Institute was ranked “highly opaque” among a list of top think tanks in DC. Records have also shown numerous email exchanges between Michael Pregent and Saudi lobbyists this year. Hudson’s ties with the Committee to Destroy ISIS not only raises serious ethical concerns but entirely undermines the credibility of the report.