Manafort Has A New Job: Helping The Kurdish Referendum, A Vote The U.S. Opposes

Paul Manafort
Paul Manafort listens during a roundtable discussion on security at Trump Tower on August 17, 2016. There are many ties linking Team Trump to Team Putin, and Manafort and his protégé, Rick Gates are central to them. Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign, is mired in investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the vote that took his candidate to the Oval Office. But the probe has not stopped him securing work amongst foreign clients, with Kurdish officials confirming that Manafort is helping them in their campaign ahead of an independence referendum, a vote that the Trump administration opposes.

The September 25 vote will see the Kurdish people vote on independence that the majority have sought for decades, but one opposed by Baghdad and the majority of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), who say it will distract from the battle to oust the group from the country.

Iraq's Kurds are hoping to boost international opinion around their bid for their own sovereign nation after three years of being what the U.S. has long said to be the most-effective ground force battling ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, where Syrian Kurds are trying to carve out an autonomous region known as Rojava along the Turkish border. Despite being a non-binding vote, they believe it will help their push for full recognition.

Manafort, who is subject to the probe being led by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, has now been brought on board to advise Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region ahead of the landmark vote. The political consultant has been accused of offering private briefings to a Putin associate during the Trump campaign, according to reports. As part of the wider investigation, FBI agents raided his home in Alexandria, Virginia, in July to search for evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow to influence the presidential election's outcome.

Manafort's spokesman, Jason Maloni, did not respond to an email request for comment and the White House nor Justice Department have commented on the reports. But a spokesperson for Masrour Barzani, the head of the KRG security council and the president's son, told the New York Times that he had been employed to "assist in the referendum and in the aftermath of the referendum."

Kurdish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that he was a key hire for the referendum because of his influence in Washington, where he has lobbied and served for clients and presidential candidates.

"He is really well-connected. He has some good access, that's why he has been hired," a source close to Masoud Barzani tells Newsweek. "He has been hired because he is influential and obviously he was chairman of Trump's campaign. He still has some access and could have some influence on American politics."

Another said that he "has a minor part to play within the large framework of the KRG lobbying efforts in Washington." A third official would not comment because of the political sensitivities of the subject.

The oil-rich Iraqi Kurds have signed lobbying firms in Washington on to its campaign to increase the view in Washington that the Kurds should have their own state. But the Iraqi parliament has rejected the move to hold the vote, giving the authority to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to "take all measures" to keep Iraq united.

The U.S. and European nations have also rejected the vote over fears that it could lead to greater sectarian conflict at a time when the country is fragile after years of war and radical Islamist insurgency.

U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis met with Barzani in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil, last month, where he renewed Washington's call for the vote to be postponed to protect Iraq's stability and ensure full focus on the fight against ISIS.

Kurdish officials have grown increasingly frustrated with Washington's calls for the Kurds to sideline their political ambitions for nothing in return. Iraq's neighbors, Iran, Turkey and Syria, have all rejected the vote for fear that it will stir nationalist sentiments among their own Kurdish populations.

But Barzani, with opposition mounting from all corners of the world, has pledged to go ahead with the vote.

"It is going to be held," says the source close to him. "He was very optimistic. I have never seen him so happy than today."