ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Shaswar Abdulwahid, a Kurdish businessman and the owner of a media conglomerate that includes NRT television channels, announced Tuesday that he will form a movement against the upcoming Kurdish independence referendum and that he will urge people to vote against it.
Abdulwahid explained his plans on Tuesday in an interview with his own television station, NRT.
Abdulwahid is close to Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s former Prime Minister, whose strongly Shi’ite sectarian policies contributed to the rise of the Islamic State (IS.) At the insistence of the US, Maliki stepped down in 2014 to become a vice-president of Iraq.
Maliki is now in Moscow, where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for greater Russian involvement in Iraq to “balance” US influence in the country.
Maliki also has close ties with Tehran. Earlier this year, he praised Iran as the only country to assist Iraq in fighting IS, while he charged the US was actually behind the creation of the terrorist group.
Abdulwahid also has ties to PAM, a Kurdish media company, based in Sulaimani province. PAM has hired the Washington DC company, Mercury, which describes itself as a “high-stakes public strategy firm” to lobby the US government to oppose the Kurdish move toward independence.
PAM Media, which produces advertisements for commercial products and services, is owned by Nalia Media Corporation (NMC), of which Abdulwahid is the owner and founder. NMC also owns NRT television.
The campaign against the independence referendum will be run by the Managing Director in Mercury’s Washington DC office, Brian Lanza, who specializes in media strategies and public affairs, according to a document submitted to the US Senate and cited by Iraqi Business News.
Lanza is a leading Republican strategist. He was previously the communications director for US President Donald Trump’s transition team, as well as deputy communications director for the Trump-Pence presidential campaign.
The public affairs firm has been hired to “engage the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Government on foreign relations and policy issues between the US and Iraq/Kurdistan region.” These would include trade, development, and potential US legislation, policy, or regulatory actions “that could impact the US/Iraq relationship,” according to lobbying registration documents filed in June.
The Kurdistan Region plans to hold a referendum on independence on September 25 in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. Abdulwahid’s plans notwithstanding, it is expected that a strong majority will vote in favor of independence.
Indeed, in the past, several NRT presenters have resigned over the channel’s hostility toward Kurdish issues. Most recently, two others, Shwan Harki and Kajin Hassan, publicly announced their resignations to protest NRT’s opposition to the referendum.
Mercury is set to organize interviews for NRT television with members of the US Congress and officials from the State Department, as Abdulwahid was in Washington last week to discuss further cooperation with the firm for this campaign.
In less than two months, the Kurdish businessman has visited Washington DC twice. He met with members of Congress and gave a presentation, mostly critical of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Speaking to The Washington Post, Abdulwahid stated his intent to form his own political party and run in the elections, scheduled for November, in a bid to become Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region.
While NMC, through its media branch, NRT television, regularly targets the KRG on corruption, NMC has received roughly US $40 million from the government and large swaths of land for its housing and development projects in Sulaimani.
In the past years, shareholders of Chavi Land, a large amusement park in the Kurdistan Region owned by Abdulwahid, have protested the businessman’s failure to pay their dividends. The issue remains unsolved.
Former Kurdish Member of Parliament in Baghdad Sirwan Ahmed has previously charged that Maliki was financing NMC and using certain Kurdish media outlets to oppose the Kurdistan Region’s referendum.
Kurdish media earlier published an official document from Maliki’s office confirming that Maliki had given US $87 million to Chavi Land, one of the projects owned by Abdulwahid.
Sirwan Ahmed also complained that Maliki had openly threatened the Kurdistan Region during his time as premier and now aims to create tension in the region.
NMC is often criticized by the people of the Kurdistan Region and Kurdish officials for having an agenda which strongly favors the Iraqi government and Iran over the KRG.