On the same day U.S. intelligence officials briefed reporters on their lack of confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to solve the problems facing his country, the U.S. Justice Department released documents showing that Dr. Ayad Allawi, a Maliki rival with close ties to the CIA, was paying the GOP firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers (BGR) more than a quarter-million dollars to lobby on his behalf.
The story was first reported on the Web site Iraqslogger.com, which obtained the documents.
It has been widely reported that Ayad Allawi and his political group, the Iraqi National Accord, received CIA funding from the early 1990s until as late as 2004 and consulted with CIA officials about setting up a domestic intelligence service for the Iraqi government. In 2004, Allawi was made the interim prime minister until elections could be held. Experts also believe he is supported by Gulf states wary of Iran's influence in the Iraqi government.
In January 2005, elections pushed Allawi and other members of his party out of power. He has made no secret of desiring a return to the prime minister's seat.
A spokeswoman for BGR declined to answer questions Thursday, saying only that her firm would "be providing strategic counsel and representation" to Allawi "before the U.S. Government, Congress, the media and opinion leaders."
A representative for Allawi reached Friday declined to answer questions for the record concerning the lobbying contract or Allawi's ties to the CIA. Allawi was not available for comment, he said.
The Bush administration and BGR have close ties; two of its principals have played important roles in the president's election campaigns. But the White House said yesterday the firm's work had "no connection whatsoever" to White House policy.
"Maliki is a good man with a tough job and the president supports him," Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel told the Blotter on ABCNews.com Thursday, two days after Bush made comments many interpreted as a shift away from supporting the prime minister.
Two issues remain unclear: exactly what the firm is doing for Allawi, and how Allawi can afford such representation.
Beyond a handful of pro-Allawi e-mails that have hit Capitol Hill offices from a BGR-controlled address, there have been few outer signs of activity.
On Saturday, the Washington Post published an opinion article featuring Allawi's byline which slammed Maliki's leadership of Iraq. On Sunday, Allawi met with Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John Warner, R-Va., the chair and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in Jordan. That day, the two men released a pessimistic statement about Iraq's political future.
A Levin spokesman said the BGR firm played no role in arranging the meeting; a Warner spokesman referred questions about the meeting to Levin's office.
Experts said Allawi does not have the resources to pay $50,000 a month plus expenses for Washington representation.
"He doesn't have that kind of money," said Bruce Reidel, who spent 25 years with the CIA and the National Security Council, covering the Middle East. "Somebody's paying for it, and it's not him."
A former U.S. intelligence community Middle East expert who left the government in 2005 said that while the agency backed Allawi financially for many years, he doubted BGR's bills would be paid with agency money.
"Obviously, if there were any trace of [CIA] funds into this sort of thing it would be illegal," said Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia from 2002 until his retirement in 2005. "But I'd be extremely surprised if that had happened."
A CIA spokesman told ABCNews.com, "If you have any questions about where Mr. Allawi gets his money, I would refer you to Mr. Allawi."
In the past, Allawi has funded his Washington efforts through the generosity of wealthy expatriates. In 2003 and 2004, an Iraqi doctor living in London paid $340,000 to the lobbying firm Preston Gates Ellis and others to promote Allawi in the nation's capital.