The New Yorker magazine reported on Sunday that the Bush administration debated last year whether to give direct support to former Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, a Shia favoured by US officials, and other parties seen as close to the United States.

But the plan was opposed by non-governmental organisations brought in to help with the elections, and then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage put an end to the project, according to the article.

Covert support

In the same period, however, "the White House promulgated a highly classified presidential 'finding' authorising the CIA to provide money and other support covertly to political candidates in certain countries who, in the administration's view, were seeking to spread democracy", the magazine said, citing former military and intelligence officials.

A UN official said the US was
keen to see Allawi re-elected 

"The finding was general," a recently retired high-level CIA official told the New Yorker. "But there's no doubt that Baghdad was a stop on the way."

The "finding" was resisted by US Representative Nancy Pelosy, the top Democrat in the House of Representative, the magazine added.

But the administration overrode her opposition after Bush's November election victory and decided to covertly intervene in the Iraqi election, according to past and current intelligence and military officials cited in the story.

Top secret

Former intelligence and military officials said the operations were partly kept "off the books" using retired CIA officers and other non-government personnel with funds not necessarily appropriated by the US Congress.

"The genius of the operation lies in the behind-the-scenes operatives - we have hired hands to deal with this," a former senior intelligence officer was quoted as saying.

A high-ranking United Nations officials was quoted as saying: "The American embassy's aim was to make sure that Allawi remained as prime minister, and they tried to do it through manipulation of the system."

Allawi's list in the January election finished third with less than 14% of the vote, while 48% was won by the main Shia list backed by Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani and 25% by Kurds.