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Iraq: U.S. Senators Question Top Officials Over Bush's Plans

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. President George W. Bush says he needs an additional $87 billion this year for Iraq. Members of the U.S. Congress say he is likely to get it -- but not without close scrutiny of how this money would be spent.

Washington, 10 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. senators closely questioned top American civilian and military officials yesterday about President George W. Bush's plans for the increasingly expensive war in Iraq.

More than four months ago, Bush declared an end to what he called "major combat operations" in Iraq after five weeks of fighting. Almost 300 U.S. troops have died from either hostile fire (184) or accidents (102) in the war so far. But Bush has only recently put a monetary cost on the war -- for the current fiscal year, at least.

Bush says he will need $87 billion for Iraq, in addition to the $79 billion that Congress already has approved. Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held the first of what are expected to be several congressional hearings on proposed spending.

Specifically, the senators wanted to know more about the administration's efforts to get a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for international forces to help the U.S. military pacify and rebuild Iraq.

Testifying before the committee were Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Marc Grossman, assistant secretary of state for political affairs.

Wolfowitz said that what is needed in Iraq is not more troops, but troops from other countries to relieve U.S. units.

"[U.S. Central Command chief] General [John] Abizaid and his commanders have said repeatedly that they not only don't need more troops -- they don't want more American troops. What they do want are more international troops to share the burden of providing stability forces. But most of all, what they want are more Iraqi troops because it is their country that we have liberated, and it is they who need to take over the main security tasks," Wolfowitz said.

Wolfowitz acknowledged that $87 billion is a significant amount of money at a time when the federal budget deficit already is approaching $500 billion. But he said it is a small price to pay in the war against international terrorism, of which the Bush administration says Iraq is the central front.

"As large as these costs are, they are still small compared to just the economic price that the attacks of 11 September inflicted, to say nothing of the terrible loss of human life. And even those costs are small in comparison to what future, more terrible terrorist attacks could inflict," Wolfowitz said.

Senator Edward Kennedy made it clear that he is not convinced by such statements. Kennedy, a member of the Democratic Party from the eastern state of Massachusetts, has opposed Bush on the Iraq war from the start. At yesterday's hearing, Kennedy questioned how Bush, a Republican, is responding to the way the war has evolved from a rout of Iraqi forces during the conventional phase of the conflict to the current guerrilla-type war.

Kennedy referred to comments by Myers about the Bush administration's will to win the war and to rebuild Iraq. He said he has no doubt that the Bush administration has that will, but he said he is unsure that the White House has established a policy to do the job properly and to protect American troops.

In the meantime, Kennedy said, the United States faces a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, a nuclear-weapons crisis in North Korea, the suspicion that Iraq's neighbor Iran is also pursuing nuclear weapons, and a worsening of the ongoing confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kennedy said American families will pay the $87 billion that Bush says is needed for Iraq, but they want to know how long U.S. forces must stay in Iraq, how much military operations and reconstruction ultimately will cost, and many, many other questions that have yet to be answered.

"I believe we need to have the answers to those questions before we provide the additional kinds of funding, at least in the areas of reconstruction. We're going to support the servicemen and [service] women, but when you're asking for the tens of billions of dollars in reconstruction, we're entitled to the answers to those questions," Kennedy said.

Another Democrat, Senator Carl Levin (Michigan) also expressed concern about the cost. Questioning Wolfowitz, Levin -- the senior Democrat on the committee -- reminded the Pentagon official that six months ago he had predicted that Iraq's oil would quickly finance the country's reconstruction.

"Mr. Wolfowitz, you told Congress in March that -- quote -- 'We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon' -- close quote. Talk about rosy scenarios," Levin said.

Both Levin and Kennedy also criticized Bush for going to war without getting authorization from the UN and over the vehement objections of traditional American allies. Now, he noted, the administration wants their help.

Levin also noted that the Bush administration has emphatically resisted the idea that the UN should have authority over military affairs in Iraq. He said there is no need for the United States to cede military command, but that Bush should ensure there is what he called a "substantial" UN civilian role in the country.

Senator John McCain (Arizona) -- like Bush, a Republican -- was equally critical of the administration's policy. At one point, he pressed Grossman on when troops from other countries might begin arriving in Iraq under a UN mandate.

To repeated questions, Grossman replied that such deployments depend entirely on whether and when the Security Council might pass a resolution seeking forces from other countries. Clearly running out of patience, McCain said: "So we cannot count on an immediate infusion of international forces into Iraq, is that correct?"

Grossman, sounding flustered, replied: "I think what we can't -- I think I can't tell you, of the three or four countries that are waiting for a Security Council resolution, precisely what day that they will come."

McCain cut him off, saying he was not interested in such precision. He merely wanted a general sense of how soon foreign troops might arrive. Myers stepped in as if to rescue the State Department official, saying he expects such forces to begin arriving by the end of the year.

The questioning from committee members was not all hostile to Bush's Iraq policy. The chairman, Senator John Warner, a Republican from Virginia, said he fully supports the president's plan.

Another Republican, Senator James Inhofe (Oklahoma), took issue with Levin's and Kennedy's characterization of the war as a unilateral action in defiance of both the UN and many of its allies.

Inhofe said that last September, in his speech before the UN General Assembly, Bush noted that Iraq's government had repeatedly defied Security Council resolutions forbidding weapons of mass destruction, and that Bush had challenged the organization to enforce its own laws.

"The United States president offered to work with other nations -- he was begging them, begging these other nations, and the United Nations, to meet our common challenge," Inhofe said.

Several members of Congress have said that despite the careful and sometimes skeptical questioning of the Bush administration's policy, they expect that both the Senate and the House of Representatives will appropriate most, if not all, of the money Bush seeks.

But if yesterday's hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee is any indication, they will not part with the funds until they are satisfied they will be spent properly.