U.S. lawmakers Wednesday criticized the Bush administration for not doing enough to move forward on reconstruction projects in Iraq. The administration is seeking congressional approval to shift some reconstruction aid to security efforts in response to a growing insurgency in Iraq.
The administration is seeking to transfer nearly 20 percent of U.S. reconstruction money to security and economic programs in Iraq, acknowledging that continued violence has forced a shift in the rebuilding effort.
Administration officials are asking Congress for permission to transfer some $3.4 billion from electricity, water and sewer projects to police, border patrols and other security measures, as well as private sector development and short-term job creation projects. Some money would also be used to prepare for elections scheduled in January and to forgive long-standing Iraqi debt to the United States.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq, Ronald Schlicher, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday the transfer of funds would help in the effort to stabilize Iraq.
"In short, one of our main weapons against the insurgents is the hope and the creation of more hope," he said. "When Iraqis have hope for the future and real opportunities, they will reject those who advocate violence."
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Assistance Programs and Budget, Joseph Bowab, urged Congress to vote on the reallocation of funds without delay.
"From improving the security situation to the upcoming election, to the need to generate employment and debt relief, all these are critical near-term requirements that must be addressed now," he added.
But the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, in unusually blunt language, warned that diverting reconstruction money could actually hurt security in the long run, arguing that the rebuilding effort is important for winning the support of Iraqis.
He was particularly concerned that, to date, only about $1 billion dollars of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction aid that Congress approved nearly a year ago have been spent.
"It is exasperating for anybody looking at this from any vantage point," said Mr. Lugar. "Now having finally gotten to this monumental decision of [wanting to transfer] $3.4 [billion], it sort of begs the question, what happened to the other $14 billion?"
The top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, agreed, recalling that the administration appealed for "urgent" congressional action on what it called the "urgently needed" reconstruction package last year.
"How much money have we spent of this urgent supplemental? It is incompetence from my perspective," added Mr. Biden.
Lawmakers were not happy that reallocating some reconstruction money would mean some important projects would have to wait, as Deputy Assistant Secretary Schlicher testified.
"The emphasis on these [security and job-growth] priorities will mean that we will have less to spend on large-scale infrastructure projects, such as sewage treatment plants and power plants. Projects in those sectors that were scheduled to begin in 2005 will be delayed, which unfortunately means we cannot guarantee that as many Iraqis will have these essential services by 2007, as we had originally intended," he said.
Mr. Schlicher and other U.S. officials say continued violence in Iraq and some bureaucratic delays are the reason why much of the reconstruction money has not been spent.
Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said the administration's request for the funds transfer is an acknowledgement of its poor post-war planning.
"That does not add up in my opinion to a pretty picture, a picture that shows we are winning," he said. "But it does add up to this: an acknowledgement that we are in deep trouble."
Deputy Assistant Secretary Schlicher said the administration is seeking to bolster international support for the reconstruction effort. He said the United States would press donor countries at an international conference in Tokyo next month to make good on pledges made toward funding the rebuilding of Iraq.