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US Lawmakers Increasingly Concerned Over Costs of Iraq Reconstruction - 2003-09-26

U.S. lawmakers, including members of President Bush's Republican Party, are increasingly concerned about the cost to American taxpayers of rebuilding Iraq. The House and Senate are considering Mr. Bush's $87 billion emergency request for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is no disagreement among members of Congress that money to support U.S. troops, some $66 billion of the package, will be approved.

What is less certain is how the rest of the package, $20.3 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq, will fare.

Lawmakers, including growing numbers of Republicans, concerned about the widening U.S. deficit, do not believe the United States should bear the total burden of rebuilding the country, when America has contributed the bulk of the troops of the occupation force.

Some Democrats in the House and Senate are planning to introduce amendments to the supplemental bill next week that would make the $20.3 billion a loan that Iraq would repay with future oil revenues.

One of those Democrats is Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. "What I do not understand is why the American people are required to pay for this," he said. "This country is a country that has the second largest oil reserves in the world, and the capability to produce the revenue to pay for it themselves. This makes no sense. It just defies common sense."

Some Republicans, including Senator Susan Collins of Maine, agree. "I think the Iraqis should be paying for many of the improvements that this bill would pay for," he said.

But the White House opposes the idea, not wanting to add to Iraq's $200 billion debt burden. The U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer, made that clear in remarks he gave to a Senate panel earlier this week.

Mr. Bremer's remarks prompted a question from Republican Senator George Voinivich of Ohio, who like many lawmakers, would like other countries to help pay for the cost of Iraq's reconstruction.

"What are you going to do to try to allay some of our concerns, and bring some common sense to this," he said, "so we can explain to the American people that this is just not going to be our load alone, and that the rest of the world, which is going to benefit from a stable Iraq in that part of the world and moving forward maybe with dealing with Israel and Palestine, should be paying part of this?"

In his response, Ambassador Bremer held out the possibility that other countries may contribute funds to Iraq, saying there is an international donors' conference scheduled next month in Madrid.

The lawmakers are also questioning some parts of Mr. Bush's funding request, such as its provision for $200,000 for each Iraqi participant in a witness protection program and $54 million to be spent on a computer study for the Iraqi postal service.

Senator Kent Conrad is a North Dakota Democrat. "They are going to build prisons over there for $50,000 a bed in Iraq. I mean somebody is not thinking straight," he said.

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan defended the funding request, saying it was essential for the future of Iraq. "It is important to build the institutions necessary for that democracy and peace to be lasting, so that is why this package is important in that sense," he said.

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, agrees. "The sooner we can help these people establish their own government, provide their own security, their own army, the sooner we can bring our own people out of Iraq and reduce these extraordinary expenses," he said.

Senate Republican leaders are pushing for a vote on the package by the end of next week. Some Democrats say that schedule does not allow for enough debate.