Ms. Bitar certainly does not act like a K Street lobbyist—she speaks far too candidly, and her well-coiffed appearance barely contains her deep support for “the mission in Iraq.” But the fashion designer-turned-military translator is being paid $10,000 a month to represent a largely unknown aspirant to the Iraqi presidency, Dr. Nehro Abdulkarim Kasnazani.
On the surface, Dr. Kasnazani, a Kurdish businessman and Secretary-General of the Coalition for Iraqi National Unity (CINU), appears to be a political contradiction—a secular nationalist whose name carries a distinct and powerful religious resonance. The British-educated media mogul, oilman, contractor and philanthropist is the son of the head sheikh of the Kasnazani Qaderi order, the largest Sufi order in Iraq. His father, Sheikh Mohammad Kasnazani, was deeply embedded with Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and 80s, when American intelligence collaborated with the Iraqi strongman. But, after being accused of disloyalty and forced to flee to Kurdistan, the Sheikh is reported to have become a prominent player in an underground rebellion that helped engender the swift dominance of American forces as they captured Baghdad in 2003.
The CIA Asset
According to Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi scholar at the conservative Hudson Institute, the Kasnazanis—Mohammad, Nehro, and his brother Ghandi—may have been the most useful CIA assets in the agency’s long and entangled history with Iraq. By 2002, “Ghandi and Nehro’s associations with the agency were…widely known,” Kazimi says. He contends that the Kasnazanis’ role in U.S. operations is documented in Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward’s account of the lead-up to the Iraq war. In his book, Woodward writes that a CIA case officer in northern Iraq was indeed approached by a religiously connected trio that wanted to help the U.S. depose Saddam; the “two brothers” and “Pope-like” father produced information that was so “mind-blowing” that the agency began throwing money at them, with assurances that they would get a seat in the new Iraqi government. The trio, code-named ROCKSTARS, supplied lists of names of people in the Republican Guard, the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the Special Security Organization and even the Fedayeen Saddam, Uday Hussein’s paramilitary organization—the first time the CIA had successfully penetrated “the apparatus that made Saddam’s rule possible and…impregnable.” Woodward did not return repeated requests for comment.
Whether they were promised them or not, the Kasnazanis were never given positions in the interim Iraqi government. Nehro, however, remained active in post-Saddam Iraq. His 6,000-strong private security firm, the Iraqi Establishments Protection Company (IEPC), was one of the few Iraqi companies that participated in early reconstruction efforts, operating as the primary protector of the country’s oil fields. Politically, Kasnazani’s party, the CINU, made its debut in the 2005 parliamentary elections by fielding a 275-member slate of candidates. In January 2009, CINU gained two seats in Anbar province.
Like its purported leader, CINU has a murky history. According to dispatches from Time Magazine, the coalition was originally a ragtag band of anti-Saddamists first seen brandishing AK-47s and cheering as Marines tore down a statue of the ousted Iraqi dictator in April 2003. At that time, CINU was reportedly united with, and armed by, the U.S. Army; a coalescence that the Iraqi militia allegedly used to loot Iraqi villages. Ms. Bitar says that the coalition’s forces have now swelled to some 150,000 soldiers. Kazimi claims that CINU has been equipped with weapons that were purchased by CIA money paid to the Kasnazanis in 2003 (this is not unusual—Jalal Talabani, the current Iraqi President and another former U.S. operative, also used agency money to buy weapons on the black market and prepare his Kurdish peshmerga forces for Saddam’s overthrow).
Sixteen months ago, Janet Bitar was finishing a four-year stint in Baghdad’s Joint Command Center, where she served as a liaison between the Iraqi army and former U.S. coalition commanders General George Casey and Lieutenant General Thomas Metz. Her work had caught the attention of several Iraqi political and military leaders, including Kasnazani. “He heard about the ways in which I was contributing to our mission there,” she recounts. As a result, Ms. Bitar was summoned to Amman, Jordan—home of Kasnazani’s wife and young son—to meet the would-be candidate. “He impressed me,” she says. Kasnazani told her of his political aspirations, and that he needed someone to help “bring his profile up” in the States.
Ms. Bitar soon found herself renting a condo in Crystal City, a stone’s throw away from her former employers at the Pentagon, and tasked with mediating a slew of business deals. It turns out that Kasnazani’s plans to “up his profile” included more than schmoozing on Capitol Hill. To placate U.S. policymakers, the contender is trying to buy an American oil refinery to provide cheap Iraqi crude through his Baghdad-based oil company, Al-Khair Services. The refinery purchase, which would offer Americans jobs, is “a guarantee,” according to Ms. Bitar. Moreover, Kasnazani has recently established Wilyan, Inc., a U.S. front company for his Baghdad-based construction giant, Booban Group. Through Wilyan—which is registered to an empty high-rise office near the upscale Tysons Galleria shopping center in McLean, Virginia—Kasnazani has bid on a pair of U.S. Army reconstruction projects for Iraq. His aim, says Ms. Bitar, is to put the rebuilding of Iraq back in the hands of its people.
While she receives help from her boss’s offices in Amman and Baghdad, the burden of facilitating these ventures has fallen squarely on the shoulders of Ms. Bitar. When asked why Kasnazani would entrust such responsibility to someone with no experience in public relations, no demonstrated knowledge of defense procurement, no significant political connections and no history of operating in D.C., the novice lobbyist shrugs. “I don’t know,” she says flatly.
Kasnazani may be unfamiliar in Washington, but Ms. Bitar is pushing hard. “I think he can make it,” she says unequivocally over dinner one crisp March evening, after Talabani announced that he would not seek another term when the Iraqi Parliament appoints a new president early next year. Positioning Kasnazani as the all-encompassing unifier, Bitar insists that he will offer a more inclusive kind of governing than the superficial and selective alliances within the current Iraqi leadership. In a country where most officials have been accused of being Iranian satellites, insurgent collaborators, sectarian ideologues or corrupt cronies, Kasnazani is trying to paint himself as an Obamaian “post-partisan” leader. His ancestry helps. “Sufis have traditionally operated outside the normal sectarian battle lines in Iraq—often acting as bridges between Sunni and Shiite,” explains John Voll, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University.
But for the young candidate—he is only 38 years old—political reality may be looming. “The real question isn’t necessarily whether he is going to be the next president of Iraq,” says Voll, who met Kasnazani briefly when the candidate came to the U.S. last summer. “But can he gain enough votes to get a seat at the negotiating table?”
Influence-Peddling, U.S. Meddling
Much about the unlikely president and his unassuming lobbyist remains shrouded in mystery. Numerous attempts to reach Kasnazani through Ms. Bitar have failed. But the latter’s presence within the PR-saturated, influence-peddling Beltway holds a broader symbolism. Since Ahmed Chalabi’s infamous lobby supplied the Bush Administration with the justification and the motivation to authorize a U.S. incursion in 2003, the struggle for power and resources in post-Saddam Iraq has spawned a different kind of war in Washington. In increasing number, Iraqi groups—including the Kurds, the once-dominant Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and patrons of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi—have placed considerable value on ensuring that their interests are represented in the U.S. capital.
Ms. Bitar, then, represents more than an obscure politician. She embodies the enduring perception that the United States maintains a firm grip on the future of Iraqi politics—the Iraq Lobby’s raison d’être, to which Kasnazani subscribes. “He thinks the U.S. has a magic wand,” says George Mason University Professor Mishkat al-Moumin, former Minister of Environment in the interim Iraqi government. For some, this dependency smacks of blowback. “People saw the Chalabi strategy as being very successful,” says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service. “They convinced the U.S. not just to intervene, but to perform the entire task of regime change for them.” It set a precedent, says Katzman, that the road to political success for aspiring Iraqi leaders ran not through Baghdad but through the ostensible source of their power: Washington.
This is not unique to Iraq. “In any situation where the U.S. has had a lot of leverage, there’s a belief that we control outcomes, pick winners and losers,” Katzman explains. Being perceived as kingmaker, however, has inevitable consequences. “We get embroiled in factional disputes within these countries,” says Katzman. “And our policies become identified with the people operating in D.C—to the detriment of our broader interests.”