Inside the Secretive Trump Lobby That Wants to Profit From the Breakup of Iraq
Ex-Bush administration officials with pro-Trump leanings have forged a secret alliance with a former private Iraqi Pentagon contractor who is a member of one of Iraq’s wealthiest dynasties. Their mission is to promote the breakup of Iraq as the only viable way to defeat the Islamic State. They have achieved partial success: on Monday, the Trump administration announced a seismic shift in U.S. policy toward the possibility of Iraq’s dissolution.
Yet this network has been intimately connected to Cambridge Analytica (the technology firm that ran Trump’s election campaign), entities that have sponsored ISIS and other Islamist militants, as well as to ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers — who might benefit from the breakup of the country. If you want an inside glimpse into how Deep State 2.0 under Trump is working, this is it. It’s all about networks of influence, vested interests and manipulation of public opinion, in the U.S. and Iraq, in particular. But it’s also about oil and raw materials, and how in some ways, sectarian tensions represent only the surface of deeper drivers of conflict.
By perusing documents, speaking to sources and digging into obscure public records, Insurge Intelligence was able to follow a thread that has so far only been guessed at: what is driving the Trump administration’s thinking on Iraq, a country the U.S. invaded and occupied in 2003, and where it still fights an endless "war on terror"?
A window into the answer comes from a little-known U.S.-Iraqi network, operating through the front of a supposedly patriotic American campaign group. The network was active through the latter half of 2016, coinciding with the final stages of presidential campaigning, and focused on opposing President Obama’s Iraq policy.
The locus of the activity is an organization called the Committee to Destroy ISIS, set up in July 2016 by Sam Patten. Patten served in the George W. Bush administration as a senior State Department advisor from 2008 to 2009, and previously was Bush’s presidential campaign coordinator in 2000. He is executive director of the Committee, which describes itself as a group of Americans and Iraqis campaigning for the western Sunni region of Iraq to achieve independence from the central government in Baghdad.
In October 2016, Patten’s Committee to Destroy ISIS provided financial support to the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington DC think-tank with direct ties to the Trump transition team, to produce a report which calls for the breakup of Iraq along sectarian lines.
The curious implications of the connection between Patten and the Hudson Institute report were first highlighted in October 2016 by Ali Hadi al-Musawi for 1001IraqiThoughts. The report, "West Iraq: The Search for Leaders and Leverage," describes itself as a "feasibility study" of western Iraq becoming an independent or autonomous Sunni statelet. The proposal would end up giving neighboring Saudi Arabia significant influence on the envisioned statelet.
The idea of breaking up Iraq is not new. It was, according to high-level sources in Jordan, actively discussed by Bush administration officials based on a vague plan brokered by Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a year before the 2003 invasion. Officials talked about engineering the sectarian partition of Iraq into three autonomous cantons for Sunnis, Kurds and Shi’as. This could make it easier for the U.S. to control the country and access the oil-rich regions.
The plan never left the drawing board, but the strategic thinking behind it lingered and continued to surface in neoconservative planning for the future of the Middle East. This thinking seeped across party political lines and reared its head repeatedly among Democrats. In 2006, Joe Biden, as the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee, advocated splitting Iraq into three along sectarian divisions. Since then, pundits and policymakers have circulated the idea. But the U.S. government never formally adopted it as even a potential scenario , until now.
The lead author of the Hudson Institute report is Michael Pregent, with research assistance provided by Kevin Truitte. Pregent is a former intelligence adviser to General David Petraeus who served in Iraq and heads up a separate campaign group known as Veterans Against The Deal (VATD), set up to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran brokered by the Obama administration.
VATD launched in late 2015 with a million-dollar ad campaign against the Iran deal, claiming it would give Iran billions of dollars to fund terrorism in the Middle East. But the group did not disclose its donors.
To be sure, Iran has played an increasingly abysmal role in escalating atrocities in Iraq and Syria, fueling anti-Sunni sectarianism and, in turn, emboldening anti-Shi’a extremists. Yet conversely, Michael Pregent and his backers appear to have a curious blindspot on the role of Turkey and the Gulf kingdoms in supporting extremists linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The Koch-Bush-Trump nexus
At its launch, VATD’s board members included Pete Hegseth, CEO of another pro-Republican campaign group, Concerned Veterans for America. Hegseth’s group was financed almost entirely by the Koch brothers’ $400 million political donor network.
A year later, Hegseth met with Donald Trump as a potential candidate for the post of Secretary of Veterans Affairs. He didn’t get the job. But Michael Flynn, Trump’s one-time National Security Advisor (before his untimely resignation in February) was also previously an advisor to VATD.
VATD’s PR campaign was run by a Washington DC PR firm, Javelin DC, founded by Matt Latimer, President George W. Bush’s deputy director of speechwriting and chief speechwriter to former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Javelin’s co-founding partner is Keith Urbahn, who served as Rumsfeld’s chief of staff.
VATD executive director Michael Pregent is also closely connected to the Center for Security Policy, a Washington DC think-tank founded and run by former Reagan defense official Frank Gaffney. Pregent frequently appeared as a guest on Gaffney’s CSP ‘Secure Freedom’ radio podcast from 2015 to 2016.
Gaffney — a staunch advocate of the Obama Muslim birther conspiracy theory — was asked by Trump to help him select his national security team, according to sources speaking to the Wall Street Journal. The Trump team denied that Gaffney formally advised the transition, but did not confirm or deny whether he had met with Trump.
Pregent declined to comment when asked whether he agreed with Gaffney’s bizarre conspiracy theories.
In their Hudson Institute report, Pregent and his co-author Truitte “acknowledge support from the Committee to Destroy ISIS, which helped defray expenses incurred during the preparation of this study.”
One of Donald Trump’s senior foreign policy advisors at the time of publication was George Papadopoulos, a former research associate at the Hudson Institute from 2011 to 2015. During his Hudson Institute tenure, Papadopoulos worked under Richard Weitz, director of the think-tank’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.
Sam Patten, whose Committee to Destroy ISIS funded the Hudson Institute feasibility study for the breakup of Iraq, has his own ties to the Trump administration.
Patten’s biography on the website of his lobbying firm, Office of Sam Patten LLC, describes him as having worked with “one of London’s most innovative strategic communications companies to introduce new technologies and methodologies to US campaigns during the 2014 congressional cycle. This beta run of a cutting-edge electoral approach included taking micro-targeting to the next level. Currently this approach is being adopted by at least one major US presidential candidate.”
It’s now well-known that the London-based technology firm engaged in presidential campaigning in this way was Cambridge Analytica. The company, which has become notorious for its role in supporting Trump’s presidential campaign, previously supported the campaigns of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.
A spokesperson for the firm told me that Patten had indeed worked for Cambridge Analytica at the Oregon office of its parent company, SCL Group. Patten had got involved early when the firm was actively fine-tuning its methodologies in 2014 before the presidential campaign.
Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, Steve Bannon, is on the board of Cambridge Analytica, which is now actively using its close ties to Trump’s inner circle to pitch for new government contracts.
Michael Flynn — who advised Michael Pregent’s VATD — also served as an advisor to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, to help expand its contracting work. Under Trump, the firm has just finalized a contract with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center on a new counter-extremism program.
Among the firm’s main financiers is billionaire Robert Mercer, one of Trump’s chief political donors, and previously a key funder for Bannon’s Breitbart News, among other projects.
In 2014, Bannon was the Mercer family’s political advisor, and played a key role in rolling out Cambridge Analytica for the US Republican election scene — precisely when Patten worked there.
In July 2016, the month Patten launched the Committee to Destroy ISIS, Patten was interviewed by Steve Bannon on Breitbart News’ radio show to discuss the Committee’s vision for a partitioned Iraq. Breitbart also published an op-ed by Patten putting forward the same views.
Asked about his relationship with Steve Bannon, and whether he believed the Trump administration might end up taking on the Committee’s proposals for a breakup of Iraq, Patten said: “One outcome of the US election is the likely change in approach to foreign policy. The new administration includes voices that oppose making America’s regional policy a hostage to a single Gulf nation’s ambition, and has been actively calling for new ideas.”
Patten also heaped praise on the White House chief strategist: “We met Mr. Bannon last summer and he struck us a thoughtful person, an avid student of history and an original thinker. We hope that new thinking may challenge the cynical, status quo of recent years….”
I asked the U.S. State Department whether it supported the Committee’s position, or still stood by the traditional U.S. position of previous administrations supporting a unified Iraq. A spokesperson sent me an excerpt from Monday’s press briefing, in which an official confirmed that the Trump administration was moving to accommodate the possibility of a divided Iraq: “With respect to the unity of Iraq, you’re right, that is something we make a point of saying. But ultimately, these are all internal political discussions that Iraq needs to have with all ethnic groups resident in the country.”
This is the first time that the State Department has officially declared the U.S. government’s willingness to contemplate the prospect of an Iraq breakup of some kind. The reality on the ground is that the process is already underway, but the Trump administration’s position is a major step toward formalizing it.
But former Bush PR guru Sam Patten is not just connected to the Trump administration. He simultaneously works with certain Sunni factions in Iraq — some of whom were suspected by U.S. intelligence of having ties to the anti-U.S. insurgency.
Flirting with insurgents
In 2014, as Iraqi writer Ali Hadi al-Musawi reported, Patten separately registered as a foreign agent on behalf of the Sunni-led Al Arabiya bloc, an Iraqi political coalition formed by then-deputy prime minister of Iraq, Saleh al-Mutlaq. Under Saddam, al-Mutlaq was a member of the Ba’ath Party until the late 1970s when he was expelled for insisting that five Shi’ite men should receive a fair trial.
Since then, however, al-Mutlaq unofficially maintained contacts with the Ba’ath Party on many levels, according to Jordanian writer Mohammed Hussainy. Disclosure filings confirm that during this time, Patten was paid from al-Mutlaq’s Jordanian office in Amman.
According to the Daily Beast, “some in U.S. intelligencehave suspected him [al-Mutlaq] of having ties to Sunni insurgents over the years.”
In January 2007, U.S. forces were reportedly fired on from al-Mutlaq’s office in Baghdad, during a raid on a suspected al-Qaeda safehouse. “One of the buildings from which Coalition Forces received heavy enemy fire, including grenade launches, was later identified as belonging to Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq,” said a US statement. Al-Mutlaq denied the incident.
On April 17, 2007, al-Mutlaq called for Iraq’s insurgent groups to unite against the U.S. during an interview with Reuters from Amman. He said that insurgents must agree on a future vision of Iraq if the U.S. military did not abruptly pull out of the country.
His rapport with the wider Sunni population is questionable, though. A declassified December 2007 intelligence assessment by the British government’s Joint Intelligence Committee described al-Mutlaq as commanding “little support from the Sunni street.”
But the key point is that Sam Patten didn’t seem particularly concerned by the fact that the U.S. administration he once served suspected al-Mutlaq of siding with the insurgency.
Lobbying for the dynasty
Patten’s loyalties are further revealed from documents he filed in accordance with lobbying regulations.
Congressional filings for the Committee to Destroy ISIS reveal that Patten’s Iraqi benefactors go far beyond al-Mutlaq and the al-Arabiya Coalition, to one of Iraq’s most powerful and wealthiest Sunni clans. The dynasty once maintained friendly relations with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, but went on to forge close relations with the U.S. military occupation run by the Bush administration.
The first filing, filed and signed by Patten in August 2016, reveals that the Committee is majority-owned by a foreign entity listed in the disclosure form as “Rhodes Precast Concrete Ltd.” The documents show that Patten is essentially acting as a lobbyist for this “foreign entity.”
The second document, filed in October 2016, identifies “Rhodes Precast Concrete Co” as a foreign entity interested in lobbying policymakers “about new approaches for stability and security in a post-ISIS Iraq.”
The document also confirms that Patten received income of $50,000 for this lobbying work between July and September 2016.
Rhodes Precast Concrete Ltd is an innocuous looking construction firm in Amman, Jordan.
Insurge Intelligence traced ultimate ownership of the company to a little-known figure in Iraq, Faisal Kedairy, who previously acted as a private Pentagon contractor during the post-2003 US occupation of Iraq.
The website for Rhodes Precast Concrete Ltd. is registered in the name of Aoun Naimi, who is the IT services manager for an offshore company, Skychase Ltd. Skychase Ltd is identified in the Panama Papers among a small interlocking circle of offshore companies registered in Amman, Jordan. Yet their jurisdiction is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands by the controversial lawfirm Mossack Fonseca, on behalf of their principal owner, Faisal Kedairy.
The network of offshore companies controlled by Kedairy also includes Rhodes Contracting Corp. and Tak Services Assets Limited. All of them have accounts based at Lombard Odier, one of the largest Swiss private banks.
In 2004, as CEO of Kedairy Construction, Faisal Kedairy was contracted by the U.S. coalition authority to renovate the Al-Kasik Military Training Base, west of Mosul, to house the Third Division of the Iraqi Armed Forces. Data from the US Army Corps of Engineers confirms that the Bush administration had allocated more than $150 million for the project.
At the time, Kedairy also headed up Dhofar, described by the New York Times in 2003 as Iraq’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturer.
The Kedairy family is one of the oldest business families in Iraq, going back to the merchant classes of the 18th century. Although not necessarily ideologically pro-Ba’ath, Cairo University political scientist Chérine Chams el Dine explains that the family would have had to actively work with Saddam’s Ba’athist regime:
“…many of the new business elites were connected to senior political figures via family ties, joint business ventures, regional origins, or patronage links. Even those who tried to keep their distance and did not owe their wealth to the regime’s largesse, like the al-Khudhairy family, had to accommodate the regime, as entrepreneurs could not show the slightest sign of opposition and stay in business.”
Much of the Kedairy family business operated in Amman, Jordan, after the U.N. sanctions regime was imposed in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war. The family holdings encompass a wide array of businesses including construction, engineering, real estate, tourism and banking.
Faisal Kedairy himself keeps a low profile in the group of companies controlled by the family. Kedairy Construction evolved into the Khudairi Group, a major contractor of choice for the U.S. government and foreign corporations. In March 2016, for instance, the firm was appointed to distribute Shell’s complete range of motor and industry lubricants throughout Iraq.
The Khudairi Group did not respond to questions about the relationship between the Group and Faisal Kedairy.
Company records indicate that Faisal Kedairy heads up a number of other Iraqi companies within the family’s holdings: Asad Khudairy Group-Holding, Al Zawraa Financial Investment, Al Nukhba for General Construction and Dar al-Salam for Insurance.
I asked Sam Patten about the use of the Jordanian company, Rhodes Precast Construction Ltd, as the vehicle for Faisal Kedairy’s lobbying efforts through the Committee to Destroy ISIS. He said:
“One day, this group [ISIS] will be destroyed and the question will immediately be how best to rebuild. Those with an interest in building a better, more prosperous, durable and fair region in the areas ISIS has occupied over the last two and a half years find our message constructive, and have supported us.”
This was, in effect, an open admission that his funders expected to benefit directly from the Committee’s proposed vision of west Iraq breaking away:
"ISIS is a scourge on the areas it still occupies, and remains a threat to the world at large. Rebuilding in the wake of its destruction will be a massive task. Iraqi construction firms should have the first opportunity to perform this work — not the Bechtels, KBRs or other multi-national conglomerates. That is one reason why those who look forward to a more equitable, just and peaceful Iraq share an interest in our mission and our work.”