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Powerhouse GOP firm working to undermine Iraqi PM

  • Story Highlights
  • Lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers sending e-mail questioning Iraqi PM
  • E-mail sent to congressional staffers; White House denies involvement
  • Firm, close to White House, hired by rival to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
  • Former Rice aide Zelikow denies knowledge of anti-Maliki campaign
  • Next Article in Politics »
By Ed Henry
CNN White House Correspondent
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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.

But the senior administration official insisted that White House officials have "absolutely no involvement" in the campaign to remove al-Maliki, nor have they given it their blessing.

"There's just no connection whatsoever," the official said. "There's absolutely no involvement."

When asked whether the White House will ask the prominent Republican lobbying firm to stop lashing out at al-Maliki, the official said, "I don't rule it out."

Pressed on why allies of the White House would be contradicting the president publicly, the senior administration official said of the lobbyists, "They're making a lot of money."

And National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told CNN the Bush administration continues to support al-Maliki and the Iraqi Presidency Council, "and we'll continue to work with them on the best way forward in Iraq."

"I don't think they asked the White House before they signed their contract with Mr. Allawi," he said.

Asked earlier why Republican lobbyists would want to undercut the administration's public statements, Johndroe said, "Maybe it's a really good contract."

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 filed with the Justice Department.

Zelikow, who advises the firm on other issues, tells 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

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

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.

But she would not provide details of the filing, which will reveal how much money the firm is making on the account and other details.

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 E-mail to a friend

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