CRAWFORD, Texas (CNN) -- A powerhouse Republican lobbying firm with close ties to the White House has begun a public campaign to undermine the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, CNN has confirmed.
A report by the U.S. intelligence community questions Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ability to govern.
This comes as President Bush is publicly taking great pains to reiterate his support for the embattled Iraqi leader.
Al-Maliki's government has come under sharp criticism and scrutiny from Washington lawmakers and officials, as reflected in Thursday's National Intelligence Estimate.
A senior Bush administration official told CNN the White House is aware of the lobbying campaign by Barbour Griffith & Rogers because the firm is "blasting e-mails all over town" criticizing al-Maliki and promoting the firm's client, former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as an alternative to al-Maliki.
Asked why allies of the president would take a position that might embarrass the administration, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Friday "far be it from me to judge why people sign contracts for whatever reason. I'm sure they have a desire to help out their client."
"But they're former administration officials," Johndroe said. "Administration policy remains unchanged. There is a sovereign, elected government with Prime Minister Maliki and the Presidency Council."
Asked earlier why Republican lobbyists would want to undercut the administration's public statements, Johndroe said, "Maybe it's a really good contract."
According to documents filed with the Justice Department and obtained by CNN, the firm received $300,000 for six months of work -- $50,000 a month.
The lobbying firm boasts the services of two onetime foreign policy hands of President Bush: Ambassador Robert Blackwill, the former deputy national security adviser who was Bush's envoy to Iraq and helped form Allawi's interim government in 2004, and Philip Zelikow, former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Blackwill is in charge of the lobbying account, according to documents obtained by CNN.
Zelikow, who advises the firm on other issues, told CNN he has never been asked by the firm about Allawi. Zelikow added he has not spoken to the former prime minister himself while advising the firm and says he knows "nothing about their relationship or discussions" with Allawi.
Zelikow said the anti-Maliki campaign does "not involve me directly or indirectly. I don't know about it."
Ingrid Henick, a vice president for Barbour Griffith & Rogers, confirmed the firm has signed a contract to "provide strategic counsel for and on behalf of Dr. Allawi."
Henick refused to comment on why such a prominent Republican firm would work to hurt al-Maliki, whom President Bush has repeatedly backed as the best hope for forging political reconciliation in Iraq.
According to an e-mail obtained by CNN, Barbour Griffith & Rogers sent a mass message Tuesday to congressional staffers with the subject line, "A New Leader in Iraq," promoting Allawi as a potential successor to al-Maliki.
"Please see today's news items regarding the increased skepticism of the Maliki government in The New York Times (embedded), The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal (attached), along with a joint statement made by Sens. Carl Levin and John Warner," the e-mail said.
A second e-mail from the lobbying firm sent congressional staffers a copy of a recent Washington Post op-ed column by Allawi that said Iraq will fall apart unless al-Maliki is forced out of power.
The outlines of the lobbying campaign were first reported by the news blog Iraqslogger.com.
The lobbying e-mails were sent Tuesday, the day after Levin called for the ouster of al-Maliki upon returning from an official trip to Iraq with Warner. Also on Tuesday, Bush appeared to be softening his support for al-Maliki at a news conference by expressing frustration with the pace of progress by the Iraqi government.
But on Wednesday, upset by media reports asserting he was backing away from the Iraqi leader, Bush clarified in a speech, "Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man with a difficult job, and I support him."
The e-mails to congressional staffers came from the e-mail address DrAyadAllawi@Allawi-for-Iraq.com.
But the bottom of the e-mail added this note of disclosure to congressional aides: "Barbour Griffith & Rogers, LLC has filed registration statements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act with regard to its representation and dissemination of information on behalf of Dr. Ayad Allawi."
"Yes, in fact, we recently filed forms with FARA," Henick told CNN.
Henick added that beyond the e-mails, the firm will also be directly lobbying members of the "U.S. government, Congress, the media and opinion leaders" on behalf of Allawi.
One Republican congressional aide who received the e-mails this week expressed surprise that a lobbying firm with such close ties to the White House would attack al-Maliki at such a pivotal time on the debate over the war, just weeks before Bush provides a progress report to the nation.
The lobbying firm was founded by conservative stalwarts Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman and current governor of Mississippi; Lanny Griffith, who worked for the administration of former President George H.W. Bush; and Ed Rogers, an aide to former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush.
The official from the current Bush administration dismissed the effort, saying that there's a "lot of lobbying" on various issues and that the campaign against al-Maliki is just a "bunch of noise in Washington, D.C." E-mail to a friend
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