Bush administration officials have told U.S. lawmakers that as much as $3 billion of the $22 to $25 billion Congress appropriated to rebuild Iraq has been wasted through fraud and abuse by private contractors. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Since 2003, the U.S. Government Accounting Office, and inspectors general in the State Department and Department of Defense, have intensified efforts to determine how much reconstruction money has been wasted.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, members of Congress have been outraged by reports of corruption in contracting, and investigations have led to a number of convictions.

However, with the U.S. military effort in Iraq facing difficulty, and Democrats in control on Capitol Hill, the issue is being placed under a magnifying glass by congressional committees.

Coming up with exact figures has been difficult, a problem made worse by the difficult security environment in which government auditors must work.

Stuart Bowen, the Pentagon's special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, was pressed by Congressman Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee:

SKELTON: "Do you have a figure as of this date?"

BOWEN: "No, I don't have a figure yet, that was just my. . ."

SKELTON: "Do you have a judgment as [of] this date?"

BOWEN: "The potential loss could be 10 to 15 percent, but we are waiting until we finish the actual hard analysis of how those large contractors did before I can give you a firm number."

SKELTON: "When will that be Mr. Bowen?

BOWEN: "That will be executed in the course of this year."

David Walker, U.S. Comptroller General, hesitated to give an estimate pending the outcome of ongoing probes, but said the final figure could be higher than many may expect:

"I can tell you that it is billions," said David Walker. "How many billions, I couldn't tell you right now."

In estimating waste, auditors are focusing on exactly what major companies originally committed to complete, what they constructed, and how much money they eventually spent on projects.

Against the background of President Bush's decision to send 21,000 more troops to join with Iraqi forces against insurgents, Walker also complained that the Defense Department has so far failed to provide information on the readiness of U.S.-trained Iraqi troops:

"This is invaluable information for the Congress of the United States, and is particularly important at this particular juncture, given the status in Iraq," he said.

On the major obstacles to reconstruction, there were no surprises.

Walker said Bush administration planning assumed there would be what he called a relatively stable, secure and permissive environment, an assumption that proved false.

Instead, violence has had a pervasive effect on reconstruction activities, ranging from oil infrastructure to water and electricity and employment, and to maintain and protect whatever rebuilding has taken place.