Bid to divert Iraq funds sparks senators' queries

State Department wants to switch $3 billion from rebuilding to security

September 16, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said yesterday that the Bush administration's request to divert more than $3 billion from reconstruction work in Iraq to security measures was a sign that the American campaign in Iraq is in serious trouble.

They said the United States risks failure if it doesn't respond more urgently in rebuilding Iraq.

"It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing, it's now in the zone of dangerous," said Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

"Although we recognize these funds must not be spent unwisely," said the committee chairman, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, "the slow pace of reconstruction spending means that we are failing to fully take advantage of one of our most potent tools to influence the direction of Iraq."

Lugar expressed his concerns as two State Department officials came before the committee seeking permission to divert more than $3.4 billion in reconstruction funds to security efforts. The request came a day after one of the bloodiest days in Iraq in recent months.

The $3.4 billion is part of an $18 billion package approved by Congress last year for such public works projects as water and electrical facilities. The $18 billion in turn is part of an $87 billion package that Congress passed for the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

Lugar said the Iraqi people were looking for signs of stability as elections in their country drew near. "Few signs of stability are more convincing than successful reconstruction projects that boost the economy, repair infrastructure and restore municipal services," he said.

"If the shift of these funds slows down reconstruction, security may suffer in the long run," Lugar said, adding that security and reconstruction ought to be achieved "simultaneously."

The White House insisted progress is being made in Iraq.

"You know, every step of the way in Iraq there have been pessimists and hand-wringers who said it can't be done," Scott McClellan, the chief White House spokesman, said at a news briefing. "And every step of the way, the Iraqi leadership and the Iraqi people have proven them wrong because they are determined to have a free and peaceful future."

During the committee hearing, Hagel praised the two State Department officials, Ronald Schlicher, the deputy assistant secretary for Iraq, and Joseph Bowab, the deputy assistant secretary for foreign assistance, for the "directness and the honesty" they were showing in asking for the fund diversion.

Hagel said the State Department request was "a clear acknowledgment that we are not holding ourselves hostage to some grand illusion that we're winning."

He went on to say that the request for diverting the money "does not add up, in my opinion, to a pretty picture, to a picture that shows that we're winning. But it does add up to this, an acknowledgment that we are in deep trouble."

There was no indication at the hearing that the administration's request would be rejected. But the expressions of concern by two leading Republicans could cause discomfort in the White House. Lugar noted that of the roughly $18 billion approved for Iraq about 10 months ago, just over $1 billion had been dispersed as of a few days ago.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, was far more outspoken. "The window's closing, the window of opportunity," he said. "I think it's about ready to slam shut."

Biden has been among the harshest critics of President Bush's policies toward Iraq, so his remarks were hardly unexpected.

"The president has frequently described Iraq as, quote, `the central front of the war on terror,'" Biden said. "Well, by that definition, success in Iraq is a key standard by which to measure the war on terror. And by that measure, I think the war on terror is in trouble."

"I'm from Delaware," Biden said a moment later. "Dover Air Force Base is the place that every single coffin out of Afghanistan and Iraq sets on U.S. soil first. We owe it to those young women and men to get this right."

Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, also saw the State Department fund-shifting request as an omen.

"It is increasingly evident that the president has no coherent plan to bring peace and security to an Iraqi operation that will last longer than World War II," Obey said in a statement. "We can continue to shift money around, but the billions of dollars in U.S. funds to rebuild that nation cannot be used effectively until Iraq is secure."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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