ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
How strong is the Bush administration's support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? President Bush seemed less than enthusiastic on Tuesday, then he made a point of endorsing him on Wednesday. Meanwhile, one of Maliki's chief rivals has hired a Washington lobbying firm with close ties to the Bush White House.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: A quick refresher course: Ayad Allawi was Iraq's interim prime minister after Saddam Hussein was deposed. He was picked for that job by the Iraq interim Governing Council with a strong push from Washington. He served less than a year. Now, with Maliki's government stumbling, Allawi has reemerged as a political force. He's not living in Iraq these days, but he has been back in the American media. Earlier this month, he told ALL THINGS CONSIDERED that Nouri al-Maliki needs to go.
Dr. AYAD ALLAWI (Former Iraqi Prime Minister): I think, unfortunately, Maliki aspire to have a sectarian system, which is influencing and affecting the country negatively.
OVERBY: And four days ago, Ayad Allawi signed a contract with the Washington lobbying firm of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. There may be no other firm with better connections to the Bush administration. Barbour, Griffith & Rogers is billing Allawi $50,000 per month plus expenses. The contract was obtained and posted by the Web site Iraqslogger.com. The firm will give Allawi strategic guidance and represent him before Congress and around the government and media. Barbour Griffith acknowledges the contract but won't comment on it.
A thumbnail sketch of the firm and the contract comes from Massie Ritch of the watchdog group the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. MASSIE RITCH (Communications Director, Center for Responsive Politics): The three named partners include a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, a top member of the President's campaign fundraising team, and a senior advisor to his father's 1988 presidential campaign.
Working now for Allawi, you have a member of the president's national security staff, who helped set up the Iraqi government that he's now working to change.
OVERBY: And that would be former Ambassador Robert Blackwell.
In 2003, President Bush named Blackwell to the Iraq's stabilization group and put him in charge of creating Iraq's new political institutions. The following year, Blackwell was appointed presidential envoy to the Baghdad government he had helped design.
Some analysts see the Barbour, Griffith contract is a signal that the administration is not so subtly edging away for Maliki. At today's White House press briefing, spokesman Gordon Johndroe said that's not so.
Mr. GORDON JOHNDROE (White House Spokesman): You know, far be it for me to judge why people, you know, sign contracts for whatever reason. I'm sure they have a desire to help out their clients. But they're former administration officials, administration policy remains unchanged.
OVERBY: And President Bush made much the same point on Wednesday in a speech to the Veteran's of Foreign Wars.
President GEORGE W. BUSH (United States): Prime Minister Maliki's a good guy, good man with a difficult job. And I support him. And it's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position. That is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship.
OVERBY: But that doesn't mean some prominent former members of the Bush team can't take a hand of their own in influencing the Iraqi people's choice.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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