Behind Allawi’s Bid for Power By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball

Dandelion Salad

By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball
08/31/07 “Newsweek

The former Iraqi prime minister speaks out on how he hired a well-connected Washington lobbying firm to help pave his attempt to oust the current government. Who’s footing the bill?

Aug. 29, 2007

The powerhouse Washington lobbying firm hired by former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi is talking to the Justice Department about how to amend its foreign-agent filings after department lawyers questioned whether the firm had adequately disclosed who was paying the firm’s tab.

The talks came as Allawi told NEWSWEEK that two Iraqi supporters of his were footing the $300,000 bill for the contract he recently signed with Barbour Griffith & Rogers—a firm with close connections to the Bush administration and the Republican Party.

But Allawi—who in the past was supported by the CIA—refused to identify his financial backers, citing “security reasons.” Asked whether he would name the people who are underwriting his lobbying campaign in Washington, Allawi replied, “Of course not. They may be killed by the Iranians, they may be killed by the sectarian people … These are details I am not interested in answering.”

While acknowledging the need to amend their filing with Justice, however, Barbour Griffith officials may not shed much additional light on a lobbying blitz that has injected new elements of controversy into the Washington debate over Iraq policy.

One change being considered by Barbour Griffith is to simply list Allawi’s political party, the Iraqi National Accord, rather than Allawi himself, as its client. That move may bring it into compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the firm’s lawyers believe. Under the law, lobbying firms are usually permitted to list foreign political parties as their clients without identifying the financial sponsors of those parties.

The firm’s original filing a week and a half ago listed Allawi himself as the client. But that filing drew scrutiny from lawyers in the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Unit after Allawi told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last Sunday that an unidentified Iraqi financial supporter was paying the cost of his lobbying efforts. “When you think about the purpose of the law, who’s paying the tab is what it’s all about,” said Mark MacDougall, a Washington lawyer who is a specialist in foreign-agents registration law.

After firm officials met with Justice Department lawyers Wednesday to discuss the disclosure issue, the firm made its first public comment on the filing dispute. “We are working with the Department of Justice to ensure we are meeting the requirements of the statute,” said Walker Roberts, a spokesman for Barbour Griffith.

The retention of Barbour Griffith was first disclosed last week by Christina Davidson, who writes a blog called Iraqslogger. To many Capitol Hill staffers and Iraq war pundits, the hiring of the firm appeared to be an extraordinary development, part of an attempt by Allawi and his backers to undermine and ultimately topple the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the corridors of Washington, rather than through the political process in Baghdad.

No sooner did Allawi hire Barbour Griffith two weeks ago than congressional staffers said they began to be bombarded with e-mails from Allawi (from an Internet domain registered by the lobbying firm) featuring news stories that depict the Maliki government as hopelessly deadlocked and riddled by sectarian militias. “All the e-mails make the Iraqi government look bad,” said one congressional staffer who asked not to be publicly identified talking about the Iraq issues.

The e-mails included an Allawi-drafted “Six Point Plan for Iraq,” which outlines various steps the former Iraqi leader would pursue if he were returned to power in Baghdad. Among the more controversial recommendations in the plan are suggestions that a “State of Emergency” be declared for up to 2-3 years “until security is restored.” The plan flatly recommends that the current Iraqi government be removed “through Parliamentary means” because the “sectarian politics of the Maliki Government … are destroying Iraq.”

Adding further intrigue to the lobbying campaign was the disclosure that the Barbour Griffith principal overseeing the firm’s Allawi account was former ambassador Robert D. Blackwill—the former Bush White House deputy national-security adviser in charge of Iraq policy, who later served as U.S. special envoy to that country.

Documents filed by Barbour Griffith with Justice show that Blackwill personally signed the firm’s contract with Allawi on Aug. 20, stating that he will “lead the team” that will assist “Dr. Allawi and his moderate Iraqi colleagues as they undertake this work.”

In light of Blackwill’s close ties to Bush White House policymakers, his role has lead to speculation that the retention of Barbour Griffith was a move at least implicitly endorsed, if not encouraged, by some elements of the administration that are fed up with Maliki. While the White House has been critical of Maliki, they maintain official support for his government and have had no comment on Allawi’s campaign.

But as described by Allawi, the arrangement may also have been part of an aggressive campaign by Barbour Griffith to solicit lucrative foreign business.

Blackwill himself has not returned phone calls since news of the contract surfaced. Allawi, in an interview Wednesday with NEWSWEEK conducted by telephone from Amman, indicated that Blackwill—whom he described as a “dear friend”—was the one who actually raised the idea that the former Iraqi prime minister hire the firm during a recent lunch the two of them had in Europe.

“He contacted me,” Allawi said. “We were having lunch … He spoke to me and he said … there is a vacuum in Washington, and we will be able to help and assist. We know your views. We know the views of your people and we are ready to help in getting your message across to the United States.”

Allawi initially said the lobbying campaign was intended to prod the Bush administration to put “pressure” on the Iraqi government to “stabilize the country” and take more aggressive steps to achieve “reconciliation” between rival Shiites and Sunni factions. But his comments left little doubt that he did not believe Maliki’s government was interested or even capable of performing such a task. “As you know, the militias now are controlling the government,” said Allawi. “I don’t think the government is capable or willing or wanting to achieve proper reconciliation … We don’t have a country. The country is in chaos and it’s in the middle of a civil war … [Maliki] has been ruling for a year and a half … The government has not been able to do anything.”

A secular Shiite and former Baath Party member, Allawi left Iraq in the 1970s and became a prominent exile leader opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein. He set up the Iraqi National Accord, a London-based exile group, which received financial support from both the British Secret Intelligence Service (colloquially known as M.I.6) and the CIA. Over time, CIA officials pushed Allawi as a more acceptable and reliable potential successor to Saddam than Ahmed Chalabi, a rival Iraqi exile (and Allawi relative) whose ambitions to succeed Saddam were heavily promoted by neoconservative intellectuals and civilian Pentagon aides to former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

But Allawi, like Chalabi, was also linked to bogus pre-war intelligence about Saddam’s purported weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism. As NEWSWEEK reported, one of Allawi’s previous Washington lobbyists once acknowledged that an associate of his group may have been responsible for feeding officials in the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair information—subsequently discredited—claiming that Saddam could launch WMD attacks on British troops in 45 minutes. The former lobbyist also confirmed that Allawi’s group was also responsible for feeding the British media a document purporting to show that Muhammad Atta had undergone terrorist training in Baghdad a few months before he led the 9/11 attacks—a claim that was instantly ridiculed by official sources on both sides of the Atlantic.

Officials familiar with U.S. and U.K. intelligence activities denied that either British or American agencies had any connection to Allawi’s recent hiring of Washington lobbyists or his current campaign to depose the Iraqi government and replace Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Any suggestion of CIA support for Allawi’s current lobbying activities is “ludicrous,” a U.S. intelligence official said. A British official said that M.I.6 officials “distanced themselves” from Allawi several years ago.

© 2007

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