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Former Iraqi leader returning 'to fight for our country'

  • Story Highlights
  • Ayad Allawi hired GOP lobbying firm because of "crucial" U.S. role in Iraq
  • Former interim PM says he wants U.S. to begin troop withdrawal
  • Nuri al-Maliki criticized after intelligence report questioning Iraq's progress
  • Lobbying firm employs two former aides to President Bush
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(CNN) -- Iraq's former interim prime minister accused Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of fomenting sectarian violence plaguing the war-ravaged nation.

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Ayad Allawi says Sunday that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is loyal to Iran and Shiite interests.

Ayad Allawi said Sunday he will soon return to Baghdad to "reverse the course in Iraq."

Speaking from Amman, Jordan, Allawi told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," that al-Maliki leads a government loyal to Iran and Shiite interests.

Allawi accused the prime minister of "supporting militias to take the rule of law in their hands."

Allawi also said he would like to see the United States begin to withdraw troops immediately, but realizes the process could take more than two years.

"I would play my role in Iraq in whatever capacity is required to change Iraq into an unsectarian country, to a peaceful country, to a democratic country," Allawi said. Video Watch Allawi explain why Iraq is far from political reconciliation »

However, Allawi's ties to a powerful Washington-based GOP lobbying firm raised eyebrows just as President Bush has reaffirmed his support for al-Maliki.

"Prime Minister al-Maliki's a good guy -- good man with a difficult job and I support him," Bush said. "And it's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position." View timeline of al-Maliki's government »

Allawi has hired Barbour Griffith & Rogers, a GOP lobbying firm that employs two of Bush's former foreign policy aides: Robert Blackwill served as Bush's envoy to Iraq and helped form Allawi's interim government in 2004, and Philip Zelikow formerly served as 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, nor spoken to Allawi himself while advising the firm and knows "nothing about their relationship or discussions" with Allawi.

Zelikow said the campaign against al-Maliki does "not involve me directly or indirectly. I don't know about it."

Allawi said Sunday he hired the firm "because of the crucial role of the United States" in Iraq.

"We are asking this firm to help us to advocate our views -- the views of the nationalistic Iraqis, the nonsectarian Iraqis," he said, adding that he is not directly paying the firm.

"This payment is made by an Iraqi person who is a supporter of us, of the INA[Iraqi National Accord], of myself, of our program -- and he has supported this wholeheartedly without any strings attached."

A senior Bush administration official said last week the lobbying firm was "blasting e-mails all over town" promoting Allawi as an alternative to al-Maliki.

The official said there was "no connection whatsoever" between the White House and the campaign to undermine al-Maliki.

Asked why the firm would be contradicting the president so stridently, the official responded: "They're making a lot of money." The official further dismissed the campaign as a "bunch of noise."

Allawi will travel to Kurdistan in northern Iraq next week before returning to Baghdad.

"We are going to fight for our country," he said. "We are going to continue our belief in the political process, and we would look to the support of the United States."

Scrutiny of al-Maliki intensified last week when a U.S. intelligence assessment asserted "Iraqi leaders remain unable to govern effectively."

The assessment came as Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, prepare to give Congress a progress report next month.

Criticism of al-Maliki's leadership on Capitol Hill has spanned both the Democratic and Republican parties, including GOP Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the former head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He recently returned from Baghdad with the panel's current chairman, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, with harsh words for al-Maliki's government.

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Levin and fellow Democrat Sen. Hillary Clinton have called for Iraq's parliament to pick a new prime minister, drawing a rebuke from al-Maliki on Sunday.

"This is severe interference in our domestic affairs," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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