WASHINGTON - A Pentagon contractor that paid Iraqi newspapers to print positive articles written by American soldiers has also been compensating Sunni religious scholars in Iraq in return for assistance with its propaganda work, according to current and former employees.
The Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations company, was told early in 2005 by the Pentagon to identify religious leaders who could help produce messages that would persuade Sunnis in violence-ridden Anbar Province to participate in national elections and reject the insurgency, according to a former employee.
Since then, the company has retained three or four Sunni religious scholars to offer advice and write reports for military commanders on the content of propaganda campaigns, the former employee said. But documents and Lincoln executives say the company's ties to religious leaders and dozens of other prominent Iraqis is aimed also at enabling it to exercise influence in Iraqi communities on behalf of clients, including the military.
"We do reach out to clerics," Paige Craig, a Lincoln executive vice president, said in an interview. "We meet with local government officials and with local businessmen. We need to have relationships that are broad enough and deep enough that we can touch all the various aspects of society." He declined to discuss specific projects the company has with the military or commercial clients.
"We have on staff people who are experts in religious and cultural matters," Mr. Craig said. "We meet with a wide variety of people to get their input. Most of the people we meet with overseas don't want or need compensation, they want a dialogue."
Internal company financial records show that Lincoln spent about $144,000 on the program from May to September. It is unclear how much of this money, if any, went to the religious scholars, whose identities could not be learned. The amount is a tiny portion of the contracts, worth tens of millions, that Lincoln has received from the military for "information operations," but the effort is especially sensitive.
Sunni religious scholars are considered highly influential within the country's minority Sunni population. Sunnis form the core of the insurgency.
Each of the religious scholars underwent vetting before being brought into the program to ensure that they were not involved in the insurgency, said a former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Lincoln's Pentagon contract prohibits workers from discussing their activities. The identities of the Sunni scholars have been kept secret to prevent insurgent reprisals, and they were never taken to Camp Victory, the American base outside Baghdad where Lincoln employees work with military personnel.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the American military in Baghdad, declined to comment.
After the disclosure in November that the military used Lincoln to plant articles written by American troops in Iraqi newspapers, the Pentagon ordered an investigation, led by Navy Rear Adm. Scott Van Buskirk.
Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, said that a preliminary assessment made shortly after the military's information campaign was disclosed concluded that the Army was "operating within our authorities and the appropriate legal procedures."
Admiral Van Buskirk has finished his investigation, several Pentagon officials said, but it has not been made public.
Lincoln recently sought approval from the military to make Sunni religious leaders one of several "target audiences" of the propaganda effort in Iraq. A Lincoln plan titled "Divide and Prosper" presented in October to the Special Operations Command in Tampa, which oversees information operations, suggested that reaching religious leaders was vital for reducing Sunni support for the insurgency.
"Clerics exercise a great deal of influence over the people in their communities and oftentimes it is the religious leaders who incite people to violence and to support the insurgent cause," the company said in the proposal, a copy of which was reviewed by The New York Times.
In some cases, "insurgent groups may provide Sunni leaders with financial compensation in return for that cleric's loyalty and support," the proposal said, adding that religious leaders are motivated by "a need to retain patronage" and a "desire to maintain religious and moral authority."
Unlike in many other Middle Eastern countries, sermons by Iraqi imams are not subject to government control, enabling them to speak "without fear of repercussions," the document said.
The Special Operations Command said in a statement that it did not adopt the Lincoln plan, choosing another contractor's proposal instead. When the Lincoln Group was incorporated in 2004, using the name Iraqex, its stated purpose was to provide support services for business development, trade and investment in Iraq.
But the company soon shifted to information warfare and psychological operations, two former employees said. The company was awarded three new Pentagon contracts, worth tens of millions of dollars, they said.
Payments to the scholars were originally part of Lincoln's contract to aid the military with information warfare in Anbar Province. Known as the "Western Missions" contract, it also called for producing radio and television advertisements, Web sites, posters, and for placing advertisements and opinion articles in Iraqi publications. In October, Lincoln was awarded a new contract by the Pentagon for work in Iraq, including continued contact with Muslim scholars.
Lincoln has also turned to American scholars and political consultants for advice on the content of the propaganda campaign in Iraq, records indicate. Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization, said he had reviewed materials produced by the company during two trips to Iraq within the past two years.
"I visited Camp Victory and looked over some of their proposals or products and commented on their ideas," Mr. Rubin said in an e-mailed response to questions about his links to Lincoln. "I am not nor have I been an employee of the Lincoln Group. I do not receive a salary from them."
He added: "Normally, when I travel, I receive reimbursement of expenses including a per diem and/or honorarium." But Mr. Rubin would not comment further on how much in such payments he may have received from Lincoln.
Mr. Rubin was quoted last month in The New York Times about Lincoln's work for the Pentagon placing articles in Iraqi publications: "I'm not surprised this goes on," he said, without disclosing his work for Lincoln. "Especially in an atmosphere where terrorists and insurgents - replete with oil boom cash - do the same. We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs."
Richard A. Oppel Jr. contributed reporting from Baghdad, Iraq, for this article.
© 2006 New York Times