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US Lawmakers Seek Assurances From State Department On International Committments

In a congressional hearing, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, faced questions from members of Congress on a range of international issues, including Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in the Middle East, and Darfur. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, a House subcommittee hearing came as the Bush administration seeks to unlock billions of dollars in funding for key priorities.

Congress approved $1.4 billion in emergency supplemental funding requested by the Bush administration last year as part of a catch-all spending bill, but delayed approval of billions more until lawmakers had a chance to examine spending needs.

At stake is money for needs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with funds for southern Sudan, support for fuel oil shipments to North Korea, and aid for Mexico and the Palestinian Authority.

Negroponte reiterated an appeal for Congress to meet the administration's requests for such things as provincial reconstruction in Iraq, development in Pakistan's northwest federally-administered tribal areas, and aid for the Palestinian authority.

However, skepticism was evident in the opening statement by panel chair Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York,focusing on Iraq.

"I continue to have concerns about the absence of a consistent and coherent diplomatic and reconstruction strategy, the inability to program funds in an accountable and effective manner, and the lack of Iraqi political will to commit its own resources to reconstruction," said Congresswoman Lowey.

Negroponte provided this description of the administration's strategy in Iraq.

"In Iraq, the administration's objective is to extend the hard won security gains achieved by the [U.S.] military surge, and to continue to promote political reconciliation, reconstruction and economic development," said Negroponte.

Negroponte described challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan as inseparable, urging approval of funds requested for employment, education and good governance aid for Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

On assistance to the Palestinian Authority, several lawmakers expressed concern about the reliability of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the peace process, and accountability for U.S. funds.

Mark Kirk is an Illinois Republican:

"Hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. funding has gone in this direction, and we have gone from Abbas being the president of the Palestinian Authority, to being the governor of the West Bank, to being the mayor of Ramallah and now probably he is effectively the alderman [representative] for East Ramallah is about the area he is controlling," said Congressman Kirk.

Negroponte said Palestinian Authority leader Abbas remains the best constructive partner available as the U.S. and key partners attempt to move Mideast peace efforts forward in the remaining months President Bush is in office:

"The government of Mr. Abbas and Mahmoud Abbas himself are a force for peace in the area and is a constructive force and we need to work with them in order to try and advance the pace process as best and as far as we can," he said.

Negroponte appealed to lawmakers to approve the remaining $220 million out of an original $375-million Bush administration request for the Palestinian Authority.

Some of the strongest exchanges in Thursday's hearing were about Darfur, and the slow pace of efforts to deploy a United Nations peacekeeping force.

Expressing "disappointment and frustration", Republican Frank Wolf urged the administration to take bolder action to stop Khartoum government-backed killings, and obtain more cooperation from China:

"The administration will miss the opportunity to deal with Darfur," said Congressman Wolf. "I will predict that when you all [Bush administration] leave, if you don't do something aggressive before the Olympics, the genocide Olympics as [actress and activist] Mia Farrow calls them, this thing will go on and it ill go down in the history book[s] as this thing [genocide in Darfur] raging."

While praising President Bush for steps he has taken on Darfur, Wolf nevertheless demanded that neither the president nor anybody else in the Bush administration, or members of Congress should attend the Beijing Olympics, adding he plans to introduce congressional legislation to this effect.

Negroponte referred to efforts by the new U.S. envoy to Sudan, Ambassador Richard Williamson, who held meetings in New York this week trying to accelerate deployment of the 26,000-strong U.N. force.

Negroponte also asked lawmakers to approve $53 million needed to fund additional deliveries of heavy fuel oil for North Korea in support of Six-Party efforts to end that country's nuclear program.