Legislators press Bush to speed Iraqi vote

Posted in Iraq | 19-May-04 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON Top administration officials faced sharp bipartisan questioning in Congress on Tuesday about the costs of remaining in Iraq, and key lawmakers called for the administration to accelerate its handover of power to Iraqis.

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, did say that the administration would request no further funds for the reconstruction of Iraq, partly because revenues from Iraqi oil fields have recovered more quickly than anticipated.

But his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drew unusual expressions of concern, and even anguish, about the Iraq war. Many senators of both parties seemed rattled by the prison abuse scandal, the assassination Monday of a key Iraqi official and the surge in violence that made April the deadliest month for U.S. troops in a year.

With public support shaken as well, said Senator Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, ''There's cause for alarm.''

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a widely respected Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, has pressed the administration for weeks to answer important questions about what will happen on June 30, when limited sovereignty is to be given to Iraqis, and afterward.

He urged it Tuesday to do everything possible to accelerate reconstruction and the political transition, to speed elections and to step up talks on a new UN resolution on sovereignty and other matters.

Delays, Lugar said, ''undercut United States credibility and increase suspicions among Iraqis.'' He called for opening a U.S. embassy in Baghdad even before June 30.

''We have considerably speeded up the transition to sovereignty,'' Wolfowitz said. ''We have enormously speeded up both the speed and the level of effort in equipping Iraqi security forces.''

As other lawmakers on Tuesday were weighing the administration's recent emergency request for $25 billion to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the few pieces of news that appeared to cheer them was Wolfowitz's promise of no further funding requests for reconstruction costs.

''Oil revenues are currently above target,'' he said, and Iraq had contributed $21 billion in the last year to its own operations and reconstruction.

The administration is nonetheless under intense pressure, militarily and politically, as the June 30 deadline nears to turn over greater powers to an interim government.

While administration officials agreed on the need to move quickly, Wolfowitz could not answer one key question on which foreign support for Iraq could largely turn: how long U.S. forces would retain chief responsibility for security in Iraq.

''The course of war is simply not something one can determine,'' he told a Democratic questioner on the Foreign Relations Committee, but ''very substantial'' Iraqi security forces would be trained and ready by year's end.

Did that mean, Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin asked him, that by the year's close the United States would no longer be primarily responsible for security'

''Senator,'' Wolfowitz replied, ''that's more than what I just said.''

Senators pressed basic questions, such as who will lead the interim government, and what authority it will have over Iraqi security forces, courts and prisons. Last week Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed one point of uncertainty, saying that an interim government could order coalition forces to leave, though he viewed that as unlikely.

The day in Congress, which also included a closed-door appearance before one House panel by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, produced some unusually anguished questioning.

Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, said in the Lugar committee that Americans seemed as distraught over setbacks in Iraq as she had ever seen them.

Turning to Wolfowitz and to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who appeared with him, she said that to listen to them, ''one would never know what's happening in America, how people are so distraught over this.

''And I think if you look at the faces of the colleagues, my colleagues, I've never seen us quite look this way.''
Senator Chafee quoted senior U.S. Army officers as criticizing what they considered an incoherent strategy for Iraq that might mean ''we will lose strategically.''

''The American people may not stand for it,'' he said. ''There's cause for alarm.''

Lawmakers said they were only partly satisfied with the answers they heard Tuesday.

Armitage said that 11 of 25 Iraqi ministries now operate autonomously ' meaning Iraqis ''make all the decisions, prepare the budgets and are responsible for all the programs'' ' and two more would do so within a week.

Control of military prisons would be given to Iraqis ''as rapidly as possible,'' Armitage said.

Lugar urged the officials to accelerate the opening of the new U.S. Embassy, a huge facility with perhaps 1,400 employees, an annual budget of $1 billion and, once the Coalition Provisional Authority shuts its doors June 30, control over $20 billion a year in reconstruction spending.

But Armitage said the administration wanted to avoid overlap between the outgoing provisional authority and the embassy, which will use some of the same buildings. ''We want to make sure that there is a clean break,'' he said.

Armitage was asked about the timing of a UN resolution which he said was meant to make clear that the occupation was over. He said this was being discussed almost daily with Security Council members, and would move forward quickly once the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi makes his recommendations, around month's end, for the leaders of an interim government.'