The Iraqi power-broker in the heart of Riga

Take note – story published 8 years and 5 months ago

If you were going to try your hand at influencing geopolitics, the office could not be better located, sharing the same building as the Georgian embassy, the Latvia-China Business Council and adjacent to the Ministry of Defense. From the third-floor window, the Foreign Ministry is within a snowball's throw if you have a good pitching arm.

But the organization renting the expensively-furnished double office is not focused on Latvia's foreign or defense policies, though it does admit an interest in its migration policy.

Three flags adorn the brass plate on the door: those of Latvia, the European Union and Iraq, and this is the headquarters of Peace Ambassadors For Iraq (PAFI) an organization founded in late 2014 according to Latvia's official business register.

The Iraq connection seems particularly incongruous with snow outside and the thermometer registering -20C on the day that PAFI President Sheikh Jamal al-Dhari met LSM at the thankfully well-heated headquarters to outline the purpose of the organization he heads and which he says is funded entirely from his own personal fortune.

Speaking mainly through an interpreter (PAFI board member, Lebanese businessman and long-term Latvia resident Johnny Tohme), Sheikh al-Dhari says he hopes to help bring a "lasting peace" to his country.

"My main concern is to solve the problems of Iraq, the problems which happened after the US Army left Iraq. There was supposed to be reconciliation overseen by the United Nations, but the United Nations mission in Iraq is limited and they don't have any real power to make any reconciliation. This should have been the job of the United States before they left," he says.

Sheikh al-Dhari is particularly scathing about former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the current government, which he says is riven with corruption.

"We don't want to swap one dictator - Saddam Hussein - for another in al-Maliki. We didn't accept Saddam and we don't accept al-Maliki. That's why we organized this NGO - precisely for reconciliation."

"I come from a Sunni background, so I have good relations with the Sunnis. In the present situation, the only winners are ISIS. ISIS is an enemy of the Iraqi people which takes advantage of every moment there is not peace and reconciliation. If we cannot join Iraqi society together, we will not be able to destroy terrorism."

In his search for "reconciliation" - a word he repeats like a mantra - al-Dhari has in recent months become a fixture on the geopolitical conference circuit, with appearances in Qatar, Paris, Berlin and Moscow.

The Russia visit included meetings with former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and current Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs vice-minister Mikhail Bogdanov. The Arabic text says Russian officials offered to organize a major conference to support peace and stability in Iraq.

Sheikh al-Dhari is increasingly cited by Latvian media as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and in December he was pictured, with other PAFI board members, alongside Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis.

Vejonis is a former member of parliament with the Greens and Farmers Union (ZZS), a party with which PAFI appears to have close ties.

ZZS adviser and former party general secretary Karlis Boldisevics - at one time renowned as one of the highest-paid people in the country thanks to his ability to hold down four jobs all at the same time - is another PAFI board member.

Indeed despite its opulent Riga office (conveniently located right next to PAFI's legal adviser in Latvia, high-profile lawyer Martins Kveps), PAFI's official address in the business register is at a building in Jelgava linked to Boldisevics and which also houses other businesses called 'Baltic Caviar' and 'Pirts Skola' (Sauna school).

It was also notable that as LSM arrived to speak to Sheikh al-Dhari, none other than ZZS MP and current Agriculture Minister Janis Duklavs was leaving. Duklavs was also present at the meeting with Vejonis last year.

However, PAFI representatives insist their political connections played no part in securing the meeting with Vejonis.

The organization recently marked its anniversary with a lavish gala dinner in Riga, flying in two former US Congressmen for the occasion: Charlie Bass (Republican) and Albert Wynn (Democrat).

Last February PAFI launched in Riga with a conference which invited participants from across the world to attend with all expenses paid. Some from as far away as Canada and the US took PAFI up on the offer and one later tweeted that he was now a fully-fledged Peace Ambassador For Iraq, almost as if the title was an honorific.

Attendees also included the Malta-based European Foundation For Freedom, a vehemently eurosceptic organization dedicated to fighting against  a closer European Union and which is in turn affiliated with the European Alliance For Freedom, a grouping of far-right and eurosceptic MEPs that has included members such as Marine Le Pen from France; Geert Wilders from the Netherlands; Godfrey Bloom, a disgraced former member of Britain's UK Independence Party plus others whose views on issues such as Ukraine are unlikely to find much support in Latvia.

The presence of such pro-Russian eurosceptics seems odd given that al-Dhari has written for the strongly pro-European Friends of Europe thinktank in the past. 

PAFI board members told LSM the organization has no particular ties to any political party in Latvia or elsewhere and is trying to engage with anyone who might be able to contribute to peace in Iraq.

PAFI is also keen to work with any government institutions in Latvia that might need its assistance and has offered to help provide translators for refugees from Syria and Iraq and even to work with the Interior Ministry and Latvia's security services to help vet arrivals for any terrorist connections.

According to PAFI they have an extensive network of contacts across the Middle East including not only Iraq but Jordan, Syria, Qatar and Turkey, where al-Dhari says he has 600 highly-trained Iraqi experts working on projects for the future of Iraq.

LSM understands that at present these offers have not been taken up.

On the intriguing question of why PAFI chose to set up in Riga in the first place, al-Dhari explains: "We set up in Latvia because Latvia was at that time holding the Presidency of the European Union and we believe Europe, as well as the US has a big role to play in bringing peace, especially in Iraq. And as we can see, Europe is feeling the consequences of what is happening there."

"But maybe in Europe they don't know that Iraqi people are not poor - not like in Syria. Iraqi people are paying more than $10,000 to come to Europe. I know a family of four or five who paid $50,000 just to come to Europe. They rented a boat and came. They left just because the country is not stable. They didn't come because they are poor."

But if the aim of PAFI is to bring about political change in Iraq, does it mean al-Dhari is attempting to build himself up as a political figure with the help not only of PAFI but of Washington-based PR and lobby group Logan International Relations, whose other clients have included the US and UK governments (and whose representatives are present throughout the interview)?

Asked if he sees himself as a future leader of Iraq, al-Dhari smiles.

"I'm not thinking about any position in government. All I want is to see a peaceful Iraq with a future. The main problem is the system. I'm not saying all people in government are bad but there is a problem with the current constitutional system. If we can bring peace and reconciliation we can amend the constitution. There are a lot of people in Iraq who would make good politicians in the future."

"As for me, well, sometimes people ask me where I live: is it in Riga, is it in Jordan, is it in Qatar? I tell them I don't know, I seem to live on planes."

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