Lobbyists helping banker recoup land Saddam 'stole'

Michigander wants Iraqi real estate that now houses U.S. military installation

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A Michigan financial adviser says Saddam Hussein long ago stole a chunk of his land that now houses a U.S. and Iraqi military installation — and he wants the real estate back.

What to do?

Hire a pair of well-connected lobbyists in Jason Poblete and Mauricio Tamargo, partners at the D.C. and Coral Gables-based firm Poblete Tamargo who both once worked for the federal government.

Their mission: Help Walid Habboo, who fled Iraq in the early 1970s to escape persecution and now works for Wells Fargo Advisors in Farmington Hills, Mich., recoup a disputed 35- acre plot in southeast Baghdad that Habboo says once belonged to his family.

Poblete and Tamargo registered to specifically lobby Michigan’s congressional delegation on Habboo’s behalf regarding issues that involve “confiscated property and related claims against the Republic of Iraq,” according to U.S. Senate disclosure filed Friday and an interview with Poblete.

The two men have also served as his lawyers for about a year.

“For a U.S. citizen to resolve a property claim in a foreign country, it’s a pretty tall order,” said Poblete, who served as a staffer for Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., and the House Administration Committee before joining the private sector in 2003.

Lobbyists-for-hire typically represent corporations, unions or moneyed special interest groups. Picket signs, petitions and public meetings account for more traditional methods for private citizens attempting to voice frustration to federal lawmakers.

But for international cases like Habboo’s, retaining a lobbyist might be the only way for U.S. nationals to resolve the issues, Poblete said.

“People like the Habboo family are usually the last people dealt with because they don’t have the clout to reach into this process.” Poblete said. “A lot of these Iraqi-American families haven’t had the recourse that a lot of big companies have had.”

Habboo, a U.S. citizen, and his family are Chaldean Christian, a sect of Assyrian Christians who have sometimes faced violent marginalization in Iraq.

Habboo, who when reached by phone directed questions to his lobbyists, argued through them that Hussein’s regime expropriated land from his family. This includes a large tract called Camp Rustamiyah, an Iraqi military academy that was captured by U.S. armed forces during the Iraq War.

The United States officially turned over the training facility to the Iraqi military in March 2009, although many U.S. military forces and privately-contracted soldiers still populate the base, according to a U.S. Army document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Habboo’s legal counsel and reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.

The U.S. Army’s heavily-redacted response, dated Nov. 26, revealed that the base houses about 3,000 soldiers. Additional U.S. personnel, according to the document, include:

  • 600 employees of the government contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root
  • 136 interpreters
  • 24 Army Air Force Exchange Service personnel
  • 40 Iraqi police advisers

Tamargo, Habboo’s other personal lobbyist, is no stranger to the reams of bureaucratic red tape that can block U.S. citizen from resolving a property claim in a foreign country.

From 2001 to 2009, Tamargo chaired the U.S. Department of Justice Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, which evaluates claims similar to those of Habboo and adjudicates how much U.S. citizens are owed by a foreign government. He's also a former chief of staff and general counsel to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.

Tamargo, who with Poblete has met with the Iraqi ambassador other Iraqi emissaries in Washington, D.C., would not disclose his client’s asking price for the land. But he says he’s hopeful that they will settle the claim with the Iraqi government amicably — and without involving the DOJ commission.

“We’re hoping that we can persuade the Iraqi government to simply settle the matter before it’s something that has to go to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission or any kind of tribunal,” Tamargo said.

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