WASHINGTON – Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni is in Washington this week pleading for more military aid for his community's militias, hoping the Trump administration will deliver on pledges to counter Iran's growing power across the Middle East.
Osama al-Nujaifi is one of Iraq's three vice presidents, and his brother heads a prominent Iraqi defense faction. Both have been represented in Washington by the same lobbyist employed last year by Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's first national security adviser. In February, Trump fired Flynn, who is now under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Al-Nujaifi met Monday with a team of State Department and other officials, kicking off a week of efforts to bolster the influence of Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims — and shore up his power base ahead of national elections next year. His requests for equipment and training face resistance: While Trump has tweeted warnings about Shiite Iran's expanding control over Iraq, Americans officials aren't yet providing military aid directly to Iraq's Sunni fighters.
In an interview with The Associated Press, al-Nujaifi recalled the U.S. military support for militias during the "Sunni Awakening" against al-Qaida in Iraq a decade ago and said Sunni forces once again "need the ground support of the United States" as the Islamic State group is driven from Iraqi territory. He said the U.S. and Iraq also need to press for the disarmament of Shiite militias, many of which are supported by Iran.
Al-Nujaifi's push comes with a family complication. His brother, Atheel, is the former governor of the recently liberated city of Mosul and heads a prominent Sunni militia. Sunnis represent about 40 percent of Iraq, but consistently complain about being underrepresented in Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.
In a speech Tuesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Osama al-Nujaifi will argue that "more attention should be paid to the strengthening of military capabilities" of communities wrested from the Islamic State group's control, like majority Sunni Mosul. He said that "may require sending more American military forces."
A significant ramp-up in direct U.S. aid to Iraq's Sunni militias — let alone American troops — isn't likely, analysts say.
"I presume his pleas will be met with collective eye-rolling," said Michael Knights, a Mideast analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Two years of lobbying in Washington didn't win much support for al-Nujaifi's brother. After fleeing Mosul when IS captured the city in 2014, Atheel al-Nujaifi turned to Turkey's government for training and other aid for his militia. U.S. support remained minimal, Knights said.
In 2015 and again last year, Atheel al-Nujaifi lobbied Congress and other U.S. officials for a long list of weapons and other aid to equip 10,000 fighters. His sole lobbyist last year was Washington lawyer Robert Kelley, who also worked in 2016 as general counsel for Flynn's consulting firm. Flynn Intel Group was hired by a Turkish business client seeking to develop a criminal case against a Turkish Muslim cleric whose extradition from the U.S. has been sought by Turkey's government.
Kelley also helped set up Osama al-Nujaifi's meetings this week with Trump administration officials.
Last October, Kelley registered Flynn Intel Group with Congress for its lobbying on behalf of the Turkish-owned company, Inovo BV. But in March, Flynn's firm abruptly filed instead as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, acknowledging that its work likely aided Turkey's government. That filing is now under scrutiny as part of Mueller's probe.