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US Lawmakers Press Bush on Iraq Reconstruction Aid - 2003-10-08

Bush administration officials appeared before two House committees Wednesday to urge lawmakers to support President Bush's $87 billion funding request for Iraq and Afghanistan. They focused on the more controversial portion of the package, dealing with the reconstruction of Iraq.

Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans are opposed to the President's supplemental request, particularly the $20.3 billion to rebuild Iraq.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, is concerned, and is urging lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee to build consensus in support of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

"I fear that the American willingness to stay the course here is eroding, and I fear it is eroding significantly," he said. "We cannot walk away from this challenge in Iraq. We have to succeed. And I look, as I know you do, to worrying trends that the public is not certain that this is worth the effort now. We cannot walk away from this."

Administration officials worry that progress being made in the reconstruction effort is being overshadowed by news reports about attacks on coalition forces by those loyal to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The White House has begun a campaign, led by National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, to defend the U.S. mission in Iraq and progress toward rebuilding the country.

Administration officials are taking the message to Capitol Hill.

Les Brownlee, acting secretary of the Army, testified before the House Government Reform Committee. "Our soldiers understand this mission, and their commitment to getting the job done is having an extraordinarily positive effect on the people of Iraq," he said. "Soldiers are working with the Iraqi people, our coalition partners, and the international community to achieve a better Iraq for the Iraqis, the region and the world."

But many lawmakers believe the U.S.-led reconstruction effort has been poorly planned and is unexpectedly expensive. Many Democrats, and some Republicans, believe parts of the reconstruction funding request such as money to create numbered postal zones in Iraq could be dropped to save taxpayer money.

But administration officials argue that all the provisions of the package are necessary to help establish stability and security so that democracy and a private economy can flourish in Iraq.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman testified before the Armed Services Committee. "We believe that this is a success so far, and we believe that now is the time to invest in the progress we have achieved," he said. "Cutting corners, in our view, will only add to the risks and may only dilute or weaken the effectiveness of what is being done now, and could end up being much more costly in the long run."

In the Government Reform Committee, lawmakers of both parties urged the administration to make sure future contracts for reconstruction work in Iraq are awarded in a fair and open process.

Congressman Jim Kolbe is an Arizona Republican. "If we are going to have credibility with the American people, they need to know that American companies, that either they represent or have done their work through the sweat off the brow of American workers, are going to have an opportunity to have a fair shot at securing contracts in the rebuilding of Iraq," he said.

The comments come in the wake of a controversy involving Vice President Dick Cheney and an energy firm he once headed, that is now doing work in Iraq. A subsidiary of the company, Halliburton, was awarded an open-ended contract without competitive bidding to restore Iraq's oil industry. Democrats say Mr. Cheney is benefiting financially from the deal, a charge the Vice President has denied.

Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, says the administration has not been forthcoming on how it is spending taxpayer money in Iraq. "It appears that big American contractors are receiving too much money for too little work, and too few opportunities are being afforded Iraqis," he said.

Administration officials vowed that future contracts will be awarded fairly.

The issue is likely to come up again Thursday, when the House Appropriations Committee discusses the supplemental funding request.