By Laura Rozen for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Concerned that tensions between Iran and the United States could blow back onto Iraq, a senior Iraqi diplomat said today that Iraq would be willing to facilitate dialogue between the two nations.

“Iraq is capable and willing to facilitate and create communication between not only … the US and Iran, but with all the countries in the region,” Ahmed Mahjoub, spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a small group of journalists and analysts at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington.

“During the recent two years, Iraq was able to solve a couple of problems between states,” Mahjoub said, adding that he could not discuss the details because the parties agreed not to disclose the Iraqi role in those mediations. “But I assure you that Iraq managed to solve problems between states during the last few years, and I believe that Iraq is willing to continue to this role.”

Click here to read the full story.

By Youssef Ali.

Any opinions expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal and sign the executive order to reimpose sanctions on Iran has had a significant impact on the global oil markets.

This move poses a severe threat to the economies of major oil exporting countries including Iraq, the second largest oil exporter in OPEC after Saudi Arabia and the third in the world after Russia and Saudi Arabia by 4.4 million barrel per day. Many analysts are reflecting on the effects that this conflict has on the economy of Iraq, which heavily relies on oil.

The sanctions mainly target the Iranian energy sector, which supplies Iran with foreign exchange and at the same time represents about 40% of revenues of its budget. The goal of the sanctions is to prevent Iranian oil exports by imposing sanctions on its customers.

Eliminating Iranian oil supplies will cause unrest in the oil markets around the world because it will lead to price surges, hence substantial economic losses on importing countries, which are already fearing a potential recession. That is why the U.S. tried to convince some of OPEC’s members to increase their supplies contrary to the recent deal amongst OPEC and non-OPEC countries to decrease production, and that in order to compensate Iranian supplies and prevent the disruption of the oil market to prevent damage to the global economy.

This move led to massive disputes between the major suppliers and pushed Iran to threat blocking oil exports from the Middle East altogether if it was to be prevented from exporting its own oil to the international market. If Iran follows through with its threat, it would mean massive losses for the Gulf countries, including Iraq whose economy is primarily depended on oil exports.

That said, completely stopping Iranian oil exports would be practically unlikely for the following reasons:

The nature of oil markets which is volatile and is based on trust. If the OPEC members in the Gulf Region, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE decided to replace the sanctioned Iranian oil supplies, the possibility alone that Iran would follow through its threat of closing the Strait of Hormuz would diminish the trust in that market. The supplies which pass through the strait would be considered as unstable, importers would start looking for alternate sources. This would destroy energy markets in the Middle East, meaning massive losses to the economies of all parties involved, including neutral states such as Iraq.

On a global basis, the mentioned encounter will damage the international economy that is fearing a potential recession, because this encounter, if it happens will cause a massive increase in global oil prices, leading to a domino effect that would create a hike in the prices of many goods and services.

This is why it is expected that while the sanctions will be implemented, all parties involved will allow for under-the-table arrangements in order to avoid such mutual destruction by allowing Iran to open an limited channel to export its oil, as it has happened in the past. Prior to signing the nuclear deal, UAE oil brokerage companies and banks played such a role before they were shut down after the recent pull out of the nuclear deal by the U.S. Allowing for such back-channels would mean that the sanctions will have their impact on the Iranian economy by disrupting the traditional oil export routs and limiting its revenue, yet allowing for a backdoor deal that will help the international community avoiding a conflict that could have grave impact on the global economy.

There is a role for Iraq to play in this crisis. The current policy of Iraq in regards to this conflict, in which it is trying to mediate between the parties involved is a wise policy. It is in the interest of nobody to escalate the situation in the Gulf region. On the other hand, Iraq could, given the circumstances,  gain enormous benefits by performing the same role that UAE brokerage companies and banks were playing, which would be a win-win for everyone involved.

In other words, Iraq can empower its private sector to establish companies and banks that facilitate the financial transactions related to the Iranian oil export, which would add important revenues to the economy of Iraq and increase the financial movement in the country; at the same time it would ensure the interests of Iran and decrease the likelihood of an encounter in the Gulf, which would serve the Gulf Arabs well.

Iraq must exploit this opportunity, especially since the Europeans countries along with Russia and China have already expressed their willingness to play this role. This opportunity could also be a significant incentive for Iraq to improve its ailing banking system to be able to implement such operation.

However, this is not possible without  negotiating with the U.S. on this issue in order to avoid being subject of the sanctions. The U.S. has in the past exempted Iraq from the sanctions for dealing with Iran, given its special circumstances. The U.S. also has expressed its readiness this time to allow some exceptions. This could be Iraq’s chance to negotiate an arrangement that serves everyone well, at least for the short-term.

On the long term however, Iraq has to find alternate routes to export its oil in order to avoid the increasingly unstable oil routes of the Arabian Gulf. Viable solutions could be the Iraq-Jordan pipeline that would start in Basra and end in Aqaba. Iraq needs to accelerate building this pipeline. Another option is the rehabilitation of the Iraq-Syria pipeline that begins from Kirkuk and ends in Banias, which, of course, would only be an option if the security in Syria improves.

Iraq is either the core, or constantly caught in the middle of many crisis that are shaking the Gulf region. These reoccurring crisis pose huge obstacles in front of rebuilding and investment. If Iraq wants to survive them, it needs to play a constructive role and aim for stability and profit for all parties involved.

By Ali Mamouri for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Two pro-Iranian militias active in Iraq and Syria declared that possible US sanctions targeting them would be ineffective and claimed that such sanctions would actually strengthen their presence and expansion in the Middle East.

The US House of Representatives on May 24 passed sanctions against Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba as an amendment to annual defense legislation. The bill called for sanctions against “persons that are officials, agents, affiliates of or owned and controlled by” the two groups.

Laith al-Azari, a member of Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s political bureau, said on May 30, “Including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, along with some other Iraqi armed factions, on the terrorist list will increase our own ability to confront terrorism and confront US plans in Iraq.”

He did not explain how sanctions could lead to this result, but sees the action as an effort to thwart the pro-Iranian axis of resistance, which includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and confront Islamist movements. The sanctions vote followed US President Donald Trump’s May 8 announcement withdrawing the United States from the Iranian nuclear deal, ostensibly in order to reach a better deal that would limit Iran’s military power in the region.

In a May 30 interview with Rudaw, Mohammad Mohi, spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, played down the importance of possible US sanctions, stating, “The US decision is not new as far as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba is concerned. This is not a new issue, but one that has been tackled on an annual basis.” Nujaba leader Akram al-Kaabi was sanctioned in 2008 by the Treasury Department, which designated him an individual “fueling violence” in Iraq.

Mohi linked the House vote to a decision by the Iraqi parliament three months ago obligating the Iraqi government to schedule the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, measures supported by the two groups targeted for sanctions. While condemning foreign interference in Iraqi affairs, including the US and Turkish military presence, Mohi praised the Iranian presence, stating, “Without Iranian support, Iraq would not have defeated the Islamic State [IS]. Had it not been for Iran’s support, Erbil would have fallen [to IS] along with Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. This is why Iran’s intervention was in the interest of the Iraqi people, and it came at a time when other countries were idly watching Iraq head toward an unknown fate.”

The House’s sanctions vote followed Iraq’s May 12 legislative elections, in which the political organizations of the pro-Iranian militias emerged as the second largest coalition, meaning they might have a shot at forming the new government. Asaib Ahl al-Haq looks like it will occupy at least 14 of the 47 seats won by the Al-Fateh Alliance, consisting of pro-Iran factions and headed by Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization. Al-Fateh came in second, behind the Sairoon Alliance, headed by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which won 56 seats. There are 328 seats in the Council of Representatives.

Despite the Sairoon Alliance’s lead, its position could be undermined by independent candidates. It is being reported that a number of independents will be joining the Al-Fataeh Alliance. So far, only one such candidate for Shabak, Qusay Abbas, has joined Al-Fateh after winning a seat.

Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, expects his movement to end up with at least 15 seats once the official results are announced, following the resolution of disputes over balloting irregularities. The Badr Organization is also thinking that it will be allotted additional seats after the results are in. Meanwhile, the State of Law Coalition, another ally of Iran, won 26 seats, and is fully prepared to forge an alliance with Al-Fateh given their common political agendas.

All this means that should Al-Fateh’s natural allies join it, it would beat out the Sairoon Alliance and be in a position to form a government consisting mostly of pro-Iranian factions. If this scenario transpires, the United States could find itself in the very awkward situation of having to deal with a government it is sanctioning, should the sanctions ultimately be adopted. Would the United States actually sever ties with the Iraqi government, a key partner since 2003, or, finding that scenario unpalatable, simply decide to waive or put off new sanctions?

Another scenario that might be even more difficult for the United States would see Sairoon and Al-Fateh coming together around their shared goal of US forces withdrawing from the country and curbing US influence in Iraq and the region. Before that could happen, however, big differences between the two alliances would have to be overcome. Al-Fateh opposes the United States in favor of expanding Tehran’s influence in Iraq and the region, while Sairoon wants an Iraq independent of Iran, free to manage its own internal affairs and regional positions.

Of note, Israeli-Russian understandings, with US buy-in, are being concluded to keep pro-Iranian militias away from the southern border of Syria, which would, of course, undermine the Iranian role in Syria. Regardless, in terms of US interests in Iraq, it appears the United States might ultimately find itself in the dilemma of having to choose between the lesser of evils.

The spokesman for Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Hashim al-Moussawi, believes Washington launched a war on the resistance axis when it reneged on the Iranian nuclear deal and then prepared to impose economic sanctions on Hezbollah supporters. “This is an expected reaction to the losses suffered by the US by the Islamic resistance factions,” he said. “The elections in Lebanon and Iraq and the victory of the resistance [against IS in Iraq] showed the US the high level of threat it is facing.”

Moussawi touts the showing by the Al-Fateh Alliance as a victory for the Iranian axis. “This is why it [the US] is seeking to plunge Iraq into the spiral of permanent chaos,” he said. “The entry of the resistance into political circles will embarrass Washington, which is politically seeking to bypass the axis of resistance.”

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on the Governor and a senior official of the Central Bank of Iran, an Iraq-based bank and its chairman, and a key Hizballah official, all of whom have moved millions of dollars on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to Hizballah.

They were designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism.

“Iran’s Central Bank Governor covertly funneled millions of dollars on behalf of the IRGC-QF through Iraq-based al-Bilad Islamic Bank to enrich and support the violent and radical agenda of Hizballah.  It is appalling, but not surprising, that Iran’s senior-most banking official would conspire with the IRGC-QF to facilitate funding of terror groups like Hizballah, and it undermines any credibility he could claim in protecting the integrity of the institution as a central bank governor,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.

“The United States will not permit Iran’s increasingly brazen abuse of the international financial system.  The global community must remain vigilant against Iran’s deceptive efforts to provide financial support to its terrorist proxies.”

Today’s action cuts off Iran’s use of a critical banking network and follows last Thursday’s disruption of an IRGC-QF-associated currency exchange network procuring millions of dollars through the UAE.  Both actions seek to stifle Iran’s ability to abuse the U.S. and regional financial systems.  These actions continue the aggressive campaign against the IRGC and its proxies that the Treasury Department has led under this Administration.

These actions build upon President Trump’s May 8 decision to cease the United States’ participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and begin reimposing U.S. sanctions that had been lifted under the JCPOA, including against the Central Bank of Iran.

The IRGC-QF was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 on October 25, 2007.  The IRGC-QF’s parent organization, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) itself was also designated on October 13, 2017 pursuant to E.O. 13224 for its support to the IRGC-QF, and consistent with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Hizballah was designated by the Department of State as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in October 1997 and as an SDGT pursuant to E.O. 13224 in October 2001.  It was listed in January 1995 in the Annex to E.O. 12947, which targets terrorists who threaten to disrupt the Middle East peace process, and also designated in August 2012 pursuant to E.O. 13582, which targets the Government of Syria and its supporters.

Iran’s Central Bank Governor and a Senior Staff Officer

OFAC is designating Valiollah Seif, Iran’s Central Bank Governor, for assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, the IRGC-QF.  Seif has conspired with the IRGC-QF to move millions of dollars through the international financial system in a variety of foreign currencies to allow the IRGC­QF to fund its activities abroad.  Seif has also supported the transfer of IRGC-QF-associated funds to al-Bilad Islamic Bank, an Iraq-based bank which is also being designated today.

OFAC also is designating Ali Tarzali, the assistant director of the International Department at the Central Bank of Iran, for assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, the IRGC-QF.  Tarzali has worked with Hizballah and proposed that the terrorist group send funds through Iraq-based al-Bilad Islamic Bank.

As a result of today’s actions, Veifollah Seif and Ali Tarzali are subject to secondary sanctions pursuant to the Iranian Financial Sanctions Regulations (IFSR), which implement, among other authorities, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA).  Pursuant to the IFSR, OFAC can prohibit or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining in the United States of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for designated agents or affiliates of the IRGC or persons designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 in connection with Iran’s support for international terrorism or E.O. 13382 in connection with Iran’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

Today’s designations of Valiollah Seif, Iran’s Central Bank Governor, and Ali Tarzali, assistant director of the International Department at the Central Bank of Iran, do not extend to the Central Bank of Iran.  However, due to President Trump’s May 8, 2018 decision to cease the United States’ participation in the JCPOA, as of August 7, 2018, the United States Government will re-impose sanctions that extend to certain transactions with the Central Bank of Iran, including sanctions on the purchase or acquisition of U.S. dollars banknotes by the Government of Iran.  Furthermore, on November 5, 2018, additional sanctions will be re-imposed on persons knowingly engaging in certain significant transactions with the Central Bank of Iran.

Al-Bilad Islamic Bank and Its Chairman and Chief Executive

OFAC is designating Aras Habib, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Al-Bilad Islamic Bank, for assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, the IRGC-QF.  Aras Habib enabled the IRGC-QF’s exploitation of Iraq’s banking sector to move funds from Tehran to Hizballah, jeopardizing the integrity of the Iraqi financial system.  Habib, who has a history of serving as a conduit for financial disbursements from the IRGC-QF to Iranian-backed Iraqi groups, has also helped provide IRGC-QF financial support to Lebanese Hizballah.  Al-Bilad Islamic Bank is being designated for being owned or controlled by Aras Habib.

As a result of today’s actions, Aras Habib and Al-Bilad Bank are subject to secondary sanctions pursuant to the IFSR, which implement, among other authorities, CISADA.  Pursuant to the IFSR, OFAC can prohibit or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining in the United States of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for designated agents or affiliates of the IRGC or persons designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 in connection with Iran’s support for international terrorism or E.O. 13382 in connection with Iran’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

Hizballah Official Working with IRGC-QF

OFAC is designating Muhammad Qasir (Qasir) for acting for or on behalf of Hizballah.  Qasir acted as a critical conduit for financial disbursements from the IRGC-QF to Hizballah.  Qasir has worked with the IRGC-QF to transfer funds.

Qasir is subject to secondary sanctions pursuant to the Hizballah Financial Sanctions Regulations, which implements the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015.  Pursuant to this authority, OFAC can prohibit or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining in the United States of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for Hizballah, or a person acting on behalf of or at the direction of, or owned or controlled by, Hizballah.

Identifying information on the individuals and entities designated today.

(Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury)

By Laura Rozen for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The dealmaker: Mueller witness helped broker $4.2 billion Iraq-Russia arms deal

A Lebanese-American businessman reported to be cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe helped broker a controversial 2012 Iraq-Russia arms deal valued at $4.2 billion, Iraqi sources tell Al-Monitor.

The Russia arms deal

George Nader, 58, traveled to Moscow in 2012, telling Russian interlocutors that he represented Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the deal should be negotiated through him, according to two Iraqi sources. Nader’s role in the deal was controversial to Iraqi officials because Iraq’s minister of defense was in Russia to conduct the negotiations, and they were unaware that Maliki was working with Nader to bypass official channels.

One of the Iraqi sources, a former Iraqi official who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition that he not be named, personally witnessed Nader’s interactions with Maliki in their Moscow hotel when he accompanied Maliki to Moscow in October 2012 to sign the arms deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Nader’s career as a deal broker in Iraq ran from the mid-2000s until Maliki left office in 2014, the Iraqi sources said. Nader then became an adviser to the powerful Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It is in that capacity that Nader’s meetings with members of the incoming Donald Trump administration in 2016-2017 — including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former chief strategist Steve Bannon — brought Nader to Mueller’s attention.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Nader was arrested and questioned by the FBI when he landed at Washington Dulles International Airport on Jan. 17 en route to celebrate Trump’s first year in office at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He was questioned by Mueller’s grand jury March 2 and is reported to now be cooperating with Mueller’s probe.

One line of inquiry Mueller is reported to be questioning Nader about is whether the United Arab Emirates (UAE) might have funneled money to members of the incoming Trump administration in an effort to curry influence with them, including in their dispute with Qatar.

From journalist to deal-maker

Nader’s recent career as a Middle East deal broker is both an outgrowth and departure from his past. As an editor of Middle East Insight magazine in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, Nader interviewed President Bill Clinton and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

During this time, Nader also served as a frequent go-between in informal Syrian-Israeli talks encouraged by the Clinton administration before abruptly disappearing from the Washington scene around 2000.

“He was a reliable go-between, a facilitator,” Martin Indyk, who knew Nader when Indyk served as Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and ambassador to Israel in the 1990s, told Al-Monitor. “He was not a con man.”

Nader was connected to the Hafez al-Assad regime through then-Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and then-Syrian Ambassador to the US and current Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Indyk said. “He was going to Israel from time to time. He set up an interview of [Syrian Foreign Minister al-Sharaa] with Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari as a confidence-building measure. George is the one that made that happen. … Then he hooked up with [Ron] Lauder. He traveled with Lauder 16 times to Damascus in 1998” in efforts to advance an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.

“And then when the Clinton administration was gone, George was gone,” Indyk, now executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, said.

“Last time I heard from [Nader] was after the US invasion of Iraq,” journalist Hisham Melham told Al-Monitor. “He called me from Kurdistan. But why would MBZ [the crown prince] need him when he has [UAE Ambassador] Yousef Al Otaiba?”

From dabbling in Syria-Israel peace talks to Iraq postwar dealmaker

Nader appeared in Iraq in the mid-2000s, looking to translate his Rolodex of connections from his Middle East Insight days into work advising various Iraqi political clients, including some of Iraq’s new Shiite political leaders, as well as Kurdish officials.

According to Iraqi sources, Nader helped arrange meetings for the 2005 visit to Washington of leading members of an Iraqi Shiite political party with close ties to Iran, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In 2010, Nader similarly arranged meetings for then-Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani with high-level UAE officials, including the crown prince, a second Iraqi source now living in exile told Al-Monitor. But Nader failed to win over the KRG leader, the second Iraqi source said.

“Nader got Nechirvan Barzani meetings with MBZ and [Lebanese Prime Minister] Saad Hariri,” the second Iraqi source said, adding that he advised Iraqi Kurdish interlocutors at the time to be wary of Nader.

Nader had a “knack for claiming that he had unique access to ‘mysterious’ persons,” the second Iraqi source said. “This way he would be able to latch on from one new confidant to another.”

By 2012, Nader had forged close ties with the Iraqi prime minister and Maliki’s son and deputy chief of staff, Ahmed Maliki, Iraqi sources said. Nader had worked with the younger Maliki on power generation projects, the former Iraqi official said. The relationship that Nader forged with Maliki’s son apparently brought Nader into the father’s inner circle when the huge Russian arms deal was being negotiated.

In August 2012, Iraq’s Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Dulaimi spent 24 days in Moscow to finalize negotiations for the $4.2 billion Russian arms deal. But during the negotiations, the former Iraqi official told Al-Monitor that he received a message from former Russian Energy Minister Yuri Shafranik warning him that there were other people in Moscow claiming that they, and not the defense minister, were representing Maliki, and that the deal should go through them.

Eventually, on Oct. 3, 2012, Shafranik went to Baghdad to try to clarify the situation with Maliki, the former Iraqi official said. Shafranik even offered Maliki a direct communication line with Russian President Vladimir Putin to avoid confusion and leaks.

“The third of October, Yuri [Shafranik] came to Baghdad, met the prime minister and told him clearly that ‘Mr. Putin is suggesting direct relations between you and him to avoid any leakage and … cut any unhealthy things,’” the former Iraqi official said. “The prime minister welcomed that.”

Maliki assured the officials that he welcomed the suggestion to streamline their contacts and signaled that the confusion over who represented Baghdad in the arms deal would be resolved.

So the former Iraqi official was astonished when he accompanied Maliki to Moscow in October 2012 to sign the Russian arms deal to see Nader enter their hotel and take the elevator to Maliki’s suite.

“We were in a Radisson hotel in Moscow,” the former Iraqi official said. “And all of a sudden, George Nader came, walking very fast, entered the elevator, went up and, I saw from the screen over the elevator, went to the level where the prime minister was staying.

“When the minister of defense came down to the ground floor, I asked, did you notice George Nader? And he said yes; he saw him entering the prime minister’s suite,” the former Iraqi official said. “By that time I realized the issue is in-house. The corrupted party, which went to Moscow to represent Maliki, they are not … strange people. They are in the circle with Maliki.”

The former Iraqi official continued, “Also, while we were there we discovered new facts. I myself did not know that those people who traveled to Moscow at the end of August, that they are connected to Maliki and his son. But George Nader I knew very well. I was shocked. Then it immediately came to me — Nader’s relations with the son of Maliki.”

Over the course of the trip to Moscow, “we came to know that one of the three people who had been in Moscow presenting themselves as [Maliki’s] representative was George Nader,” the former Iraqi official said.

A call Wednesday by Al-Monitor to an attorney who represented Nader in an earlier case was not returned. A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy said it did not have information on the matter.

The Iraqi-Russian arms deal was controversial in Iraq and long suspected to have involved corruption. In November 2012, just a month after it was signed, Iraq’s then-acting Defense Minister Dulaimi announced that the deal was canceled, “citing possible corruption in the contract,” Reuters reported.

But Maliki’s then-media adviser Ali al-Moussawi was cited by Reuters as saying that the deals would be renegotiated and any suspension of the contract was “a precautionary measure because of suspected corruption.”

From Iraq to the UAE

After the end of Maliki’s run as Iraq’s prime minister in 2014, Nader made his way to become an adviser to the Abu Dhabi crown prince. Until Trump’s election, however, he had maintained such a low profile that even several Washington consultants who have advised the Emirates said they were entirely unaware of his role.

It may now be left to Mueller to help deepen understanding of Nader’s mysterious activities and what role they may have played in influencing the Trump administration’s policies toward the Middle East.

By Jack Detsch for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal for next fiscal year does not include peshmerga salaries even as the Pentagon aims to continue training the Kurdish force.

The Department of Defense had requested $365 million in stipends for the year that ends Sept. 30 but did not spend the money after negotiations to extend an expiring memorandum of understanding broke down in September. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had agreed to pay the peshmerga wages in October, but a US Inspector General report released earlier this month said the Kurdish fighters still hadn’t been paid

“Those documents do not specifically refer to training/stipends for the peshmerga,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told Al-Monitor in an email today. Lawmakers have yet to weigh in on the $716 billion Pentagon request for fiscal year 2019.

Instead, President Donald Trump’s budget request for the year starting Oct. 1 seeks $850 million to train and equip Iraqi troops with a focus on bolstering the Iraqi Security Forces with Ranger brigades. As part of that amount, the peshmerga force of about 150,000 could still be eligible for up to $290 million in so-called operational sustainment funds aimed at preventing the Iraqi government from becoming more reliant on Iran and Russia, according to budget language.

The shift in focus by the United States comes as the Iraqi Kurds have been marginalized by Baghdad following the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) controversial independence vote in September. As a result, US and peshmerga officials are at odds over how much assistance is actually getting through to Erbil since Baghdad has to sign off on any weapons shipments to the Kurdish troops.

“Right now, the Iraqis are stopping a lot of stuff,” said Michael Knights, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Though the Pentagon acknowledges that the peshmerga proved helpful to the US-backed coalition until the beginning of the Mosul fight in 2016, the Kurdish force has faced difficulties in assimilating US equipment, experts say, in part because the peshmerga relies on its own training structures and tactical formations. The US-led coalition said in December that 5,200 American advisers in Iraq had stopped advising the peshmerga as the Pentagon appears set to draw down its presence.

Over the past year, the United States also sold the Iraqi government nearly $300 million worth of military equipment to outfit two infantry brigades with M-16 rifles, .50 caliber machine guns, up-armored Humvees and mine-resistant vehicles. That was cut down from an initial effort to outfit four peshmerga brigades — each typically between 4,000 to 8,000 troops — including a border unit.

“Peshmerga brigades didn’t fit a US brigade set,” Knights told Al-Monitor. “A lot of the German equipment went everywhere. Gucci German assault rifles got given to commanders and bodyguards.”

The US-led force has trained 26,000 peshmerga over the course of the anti-IS mission that began in 2014. Even though the funding stream appears to be in a winnowing process, the United States and the KRG remain engaged in high-level dialogues, with the peshmerga still playing an important role as the Pentagon aims to curb the influence of Iran-backed Shiite militias that are enmeshed in the Iraqi Security Forces.

In meetings in Washington in November, the head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations called for the United States to do more to encourage talks with Baghdad and keep tenuous supply lines open on the border, including the Fish Khabur crossing, a critical lifeline for the 2,000 US troops serving in Syria.

“We already have border guards,” Falah Mustafa told Al-Monitor in a November interview. “Border guards are wearing Iraqi uniforms, they are on the payroll of the Iraqi government, they are getting instructions and directives from the Iraqi government in Baghdad.”

(Picure Credit: David B. Gleason)

By Jack Detsch for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Pentagon stops paying peshmerga salaries amid Kurdish independence backlash

The US government has stopped paying Kurdish peshmerga fighters’ salaries after a yearlong agreement expired over the summer, and there are no current plans to renew it.

Under the deal negotiated by the Barack Obama administration in July 2016, the United States agreed to pay stipends to some 36,000 Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. The agreement was expected to be renewed over the summer for another year, but US and Kurdish officials tell Al-Monitor that talks stalled as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) pursued a divisive referendum on independence and the IS presence in the region began to collapse.

“The department does not currently fund stipend payments for the peshmerga,” Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon told Al-Monitor. “The memorandum of understanding between the Department of Defense and the KRG facilitating stipend support during the Mosul operation expired in July 2017, and the final stipend payment was transferred in early September.”

Peshmerga sources flatly accuse the Donald Trump administration of withholding support because of opposition to last month’s nonbinding referendum. The United States has taken Baghdad’s side in the dispute and refused to recognize the results, which indicate overwhelming support for Kurdish independence.

There was a plan to renew and sign a new similar memorandum of understanding, but the United States discontinued it because of the referendum, Brig. Gen. Hajar Omer Ismail, director of coordination and relations for the Ministry of Peshmerga, told Al-Monitor. He said no weapons had been received for a while even before the memorandum of understanding expired.

Pahon declined to comment on what he called “internal business matters.” He said the United States and the KRG did not have “any talks on the table” about renewing the memorandum of understanding for months prior to the Sept. 25 vote, “so the referendum has no effect at this point.”

From the American Civil Liberties Union. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The Trump administration today settled with the plaintiffs in the first legal challenge to the president’s original executive order, which sought to bar travelers from certain majority Muslim countries from entering the United States and to dramatically curtail the admission of refugees.

The settlement ensures that all travelers who were barred from the country on the basis of the ban and have not since returned to the United States are informed of their right to reapply for a visa and provided with a list of free legal services organizations that can help them do so.

The settlement came in the case of Darweesh v. Trump, which was filed as a nationwide class-action in federal district court in New York City on the morning of January 28, 2017, only hours after the first Muslim ban went into effect.

The ban had plunged airports across the country into chaos as the Trump administration haphazardly implemented its discriminatory policy, leading to the separation of families and exclusion of refugees fleeing persecution.

By the evening of January 28, the court had issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the Trump administration from removing anyone from the country on the basis of the Muslim ban. As a result, the administration’s effort to bar Muslims and refugees from the country was halted barely 24 hours after it went into effect.

Having succeeded in halting detentions under the Muslim ban, the lawsuit then sought to address the harm done to those already excluded in the chaotic first days of the Muslim ban. In the settlement announced today, the government agreed to contact all individuals who had been barred from entry as a result of the ban and have not since reapplied for a visa or entered the United States, and to inform them of their right to reapply for a visa.

By Adnan Abu Zeed for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

US mulls how best to Control pro-Iran Factions in Mideast

As the administration of US President Donald Trump looks ahead to a post-Islamic State (IS) status in the Middle East, it is clear there are concerns over the potential military role the armed organizations backed by Iran could play.

Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, recently told the Associated Press the United States “is still forming a ‘comprehensive Iran policy’ that addresses Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.”

Meanwhile, according to Kuwaiti Al-Rai newspaper, Trump promised Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, during the prince’s May 15-17 visit to Washington, that the United States is working to impose sanctions on the Iranian allies who are involved in terrorism — including allies in the Iraqi and Lebanese governments.

A Saudi delegation to the United Nations earlier this month also expressed concern that Iranian militias continue to pose a threat to stability in the region.

It’s evident the United States and the Gulf states are worried about the wide Iranian influence in these countries, be it through political leaders, armed organizations or militias. In Lebanon, the biggest player is Hezbollah, backed by Iran. In Iraq, there are armed parties and factions known for their close relationship with Tehran and for receiving financial and political support from it.

Rayan al-Kaldani, the leader of the Babylon Brigade, which is a part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), told Al-Monitor, “The relationship between the PMU and Iran is not based on dependence, as the Gulf states like to promote.” He noted, “Tehran helped Iraq in its war on [IS], and this has been recognized by the Western parties themselves.”

By John Lee.

A British academic has said that visiting Iraq has caused him to have problems entering the United States.

Writing in Times Higher Education, Nick Petford, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton, said:

My forays [into Iraq] have not been without consequence. In March this year I fell foul of Donald Trump’s travel restrictions from Middle Eastern countries that included Iraq. On a trip to Miami, I was pulled out of the immigration queue by Homeland Security, held for five hours and questioned twice about why I had been to “Syria”.

“My UK ESTA travel authorisation was revoked and replaced by a temporary visa, probably because more paperwork was needed to kick me out than let me in. Whether I’ll be allowed back into the US any time soon is yet to be resolved.

But he says that this experience won’t stop him travelling to Iraq again. “Our rationale for working there and in other challenging territories is simple,” he adds.

Our mission requires it, and frankly the Iraqi people deserve our support given the UK’s historically interventionist stance. One area that we intend to focus on more with our Iraqi partners is healthcare. Another is MBA provision. There are also research opportunities that include exchange visits between staff and students.”

Nick Petford’s full article can be read here.

(Source: Times Higher Education)