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No Preference for American Companies in Iraq Reconstruction, says US Official - 2003-03-28

A senior U.S. official has called on European countries to put aside their disagreements over war in Iraq and cooperate with the United States in the post-war reconstruction of the country. The United States also denies that American companies will capture most of these reconstruction contracts.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Alan Larson criticized recent European complaints that U.S. companies were being awarded the major Iraqi reconstruction contracts.

Mr. Larson - the U.S. undersecretary of economic, business and agricultural affairs - told a news conference in Paris that discussing contracts was misplaced at a time when war is still raging.

"The contracts that are being widely discussed are contracts that use U.S. taxpayer money to provide very quick emergency rehabilitation services," he said, "including activities like reopening ports so that food can come in, re-establishing electric power, putting out oil fires so that the natural resources of Iraq do not go up in smoke, literally."

Mr. Larson said choosing American companies to handle these initial efforts was quicker and more efficient. In recent days, multi-million-dollar contracts have been awarded to large U.S. firms. But Mr. Larson said the U.S. government is open to foreign bidders, both now and in the future.

The U.S. undersecretary's remarks follow meetings in Brussels and Paris ahead of a June G-8 summit in Evian, France. Transatlantic disagreement lingers over war on Iraq, and G-8 members such as Germany, Russia and France have all condemned the U.S.-led action.

Europeans and Americans are also at odds over who will pay for Iraq's post-war reconstruction. However, Mr. Larson characterized the mood between U.S. and European officials this week as "very positive."

"I think the best way to deal with the difficult feelings that exist on both sides of the Atlantic is to get on with the work at hand," he said. "There's a lot of that work, and it isn't going to get accomplished unless Europe and the United States work together."

Mr. Larson did not directly address concerns by France, Germany and other war critics that the United Nations should play the leading role in Iraq's reconstruction. Specific arrangements must be worked out over time, he said, but the international community should cooperate as it now does in rebuilding Afghanistan.

He said the U.N. oil-for-food program could be used for short term humanitarian aid to Iraq. Separately, he pointed out that both the United States and the European Union have earmarked more than $100 million for immediate humanitarian relief.

In the longer term, Mr. Larson also suggested, the so-called "Paris club" of creditors might address Iraq's sizable debt.