U.S. officials expect contributions to Iraq to exceed estimates

Many European donors remain skeptical of giving

October 24, 2003|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain - U.S. officials predicted yesterday that contributors will be more generous than expected in funding Iraqi reconstruction, despite the latest international divisions over U.S. stewardship that burst into view at a donors conference.

Even as a senior U.S. official noted a "snowballing effect among donors," Chris Patten, European Union commissioner of external affairs, defended many Europeans' reluctance to chip in.

"You can't expect European taxpayers who felt pretty hostile to military intervention to feel highly enthusiastic about spending a large amount of money in Iraq," Patten said at a news conference during the first day of the two-day event. He said it was "crazy" for organizers to be gathering money for later years, given the murky situation, and asserted that the authorities would have trouble spending even $5 billion, because of the security risks.

"These security problems, if you look at the figures, do not appear at the moment to be getting better," he said.

Diplomats said they expected that the meeting, by raising money and drawing international attention, would strengthen the hand of the U.S.-led coalition in reshaping Iraq. Yet Patten's comments were taken as a proof of the world's deep ambivalence - especially because his organization is one of the "core sponsors" of the event.

Differences masked

Mark Malloch Brown, leader of the United Nations Development Group, said the event was much like the U.N. Security Council's vote last week on Iraq aid, in which a 15-0 margin masked sharp differences of opinion.

Although total collections won't be known until late today, Malloch Brown predicted that the conference would bring $20 billion to $30 billion - or $5 billion to $15 billion more than the $15 billion that President Bush is currently asking U.S. taxpayers to fund over the next 15 months.

It was not clear how much of the money would be upfront cash, and how much loans, or pledges for later years when they may not be needed.

Senior U.S. officials, while declining to make specific predictions, said the forecasts of the proceeds have been far too gloomy. One of them insisted that U.S. officials have succeeded in increasing donations every time they have held talks with countries.

World Bank economists said in an analysis that Iraq might be able to absorb spending of only about $6 billion next year. But U.S. officials disputed this, saying that rehabilitating existing infrastructure requires large amounts of money in the first year.

`Good couple of weeks'

L. Paul Bremer III, administrator of the U.S.-led occupation, described the event to reporters as part of a Bush administration winning streak that also included last week's vote on the U.N. resolution for Iraqi aid, and recent congressional votes to give the administration almost all of what it has asked for on Iraq.

"We've had a really good couple of weeks," said Bremer, who appeared with at least 80 officials of the Iraqi transitional government to talk about the country's needs.

U.S. officials also disclosed that they intend this to be the first of a series of donors conferences for the United Nations.

The United States got a boost from a strong appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Although Annan has been openly critical of the United States, and had mixed feelings about attending the event, he urged participants to "give generously" to the rebuilding.

But among the humanitarian and other nongovernmental groups who came to discuss Iraq's needs, there were complaints that the American team has not done enough to deal with insecurity in the country, and has not been forthcoming about its rebuilding efforts.

Aid groups meet

Brendan Paddy, an official of Save the Children (U.K.), said that in a meeting of aid groups and potential donors there was "wide agreement" among the groups that there should be more transparency, a bigger role for the United Nations and a quicker transfer of power.

Another group, Christian Aid of the United Kingdom, released a report charging that the United States could not account for billions in lost Iraqi assets, a charge U.S. officials strongly denied.

U.N. officials expressed concern that Iraq, a potentially wealthy country with an estimated 112 billion barrels of oil reserves, should not absorb international aid that is badly needed elsewhere.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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