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Congress Questions Slow Pace of Iraqi Reconstruction Spending - 2004-07-04

Congress is questioning the slow pace of U.S.-funded reconstruction efforts in Iraq. The Senate Armed Services Committee has requested that the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, appear before the committee to give an explanation.

The U.S. government has spent just two percent of a nearly $18.5-billion aid package that Congress approved in October to finance Iraqi reconstruction, amid cries of urgency from President Bush and Republican leaders.

Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press program, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman expressed his concern. "I can't explain how that happened," he said. "We quite generously appropriated that $18 billion. It's stunning to see that so little of it has been spent."

Senator Lieberman added that the Coalition Provisional Authority, which transferred power to an Iraqi interim government last Monday, did spend $20 billion of Iraqi oil money for reconstruction efforts.

"And a lot of good things have happened, the hospitals are open, most of the schools are open, the electricity is more available, water is more available, but there's a lot more to do," he said.

Republican Senator John Warner said the Armed Services Committee, which he heads, has invited Ambassador Bremer to testify about how the money was or was not used. "Let Bremer give his side of the story," said Senator Warner.

Senator Warner said the already slow process of disbursing public funds was exacerbated by Iraq's worsening security situation. "The contracts had to be competed," he said. "There was a deterioration in the security system, which scared a lot of contractors off. I think they've been struggling with a tough job."

On Fox News Sunday, Ambassador Bremer said he was among the chief critics of what he called the "Washington bureaucracy," which he says slowed the process down considerably.

"We ran into problems with the contracting, which requires a 90-day turnaround for any contract let," he explained. "And that was, I grant, a problem, but that was the law, and we wanted to obey the law. So, it's a little hard to know how you could have done more."

Ambassador Bremer said that, of the $18 billion in question, $10 billion was officially "committed" by June 30. Of the $10 billion committed, though, he acknowledged that a smaller amount was actually earmarked to be spent.

"You have to commit the money and you have to then obligate the money," he said. "We said we would have obligated about $5 billion. We obligated a little bit more than $5 billion."

Security and Iraqi reconstruction efforts are top priorities for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who spoke on ABC's This Week program.

"Our strategy really is tackling the security issue," said Mr. Allawi. "Secondly, providing for the basic services that should be restored as soon as possible. Thirdly, to absorb the unemployment, to get people employed and to get the economic cycle running in Iraq."

In a report released Friday, the White House budget office said a total of $366 million of the $18 billion Iraqi reconstruction fund had been spent through June 22. White House officials say significant work there is under way, and that many of the funds are not released until substantial work has been done.

Meanwhile, in an opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post, presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry urged the U.S. government to give international companies what he called fair access to the multi-billion dollar Iraqi reconstruction contracts.