Viewpoint: Economic assaults on Iraq rebirth

Two top Republicans in the Congress have strongly attacked the Bush administration’s policy on rebuilding Iraq.

The Boston Globe reported the attacks came during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was taking testimony from State Department officials on an administration plan to divert to Iraq security operations almost 20 percent of the $18.4 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds. The money was to originally go toward public works projects and economic development in Saddam Hussein’s former empire.

The Globe said attention soon shifted from the testimony to pointed assaults on what Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the committee chairman, called the “dancing-in-the-street crowd,” a reference to neo-con predictions that Iraqis would celebrate the fall of Saddam 18 months ago. Lugar said the same group has not changed its strategy since.

“Now, the nonsense of all [the predictions] is apparent; the lack of planning is apparent,” Lugar said.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., described the pace of reconstruction in Iraq as “beyond pitiful. It’s embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous. You don’t win the hearts and minds of the people at the end of a barrel of a gun,” Hagel, a veteran of Vietnam, said. “You do that through the process that we started here in the Congress appropriating $18.4 billion.”

In a reference to top-level neo-cons in the administration, he added: “Maybe we ought to have a hearing with the inventors of this, have them come back up, all these smart guys that got us in there and said, ‘Don’t worry.’”

The critical remarks are symptomatic of increasing concern in both parties that Iraq is out of control, with large areas of the country under guerrilla occupation and mounting attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.

The hearing also sent a clear signal to the White House that some Republicans who backed Bush’s decision to invade Iraq last year are very worried that the administration’s Iraq policy is skidding off track. The administration was warned by some quarters not to invade Iraq and that this type of situation might result. Bush chose to ignore the warnings.

Last week, in an effort to strengthen security in Iraq, the administration said it was asking Congress for permission to take about $3.5 billion of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds approved last November.

A majority of the money would be used to furnish more training for Iraqi police. A lesser amount would go toward establishing a national work program to fight the unemployment rate, estimated at 50 percent. It is hoped these measures would be effective in persuading young Iraqis not to join the opposition forces.

State Department figures show U.S. funds have helped create 111,000 new jobs for Iraqis, an amount far below what experts say is necessary to deter defections to the insurgents.

Administration officials told the committee the proposed shift of funds is part of a new State Department strategy. State took over Iraqi reconstruction from the Defense Department in June.

“An uncertain security situation affects all potential economic and political development,” according to Joseph Bowab, deputy assistant secretary of state for foreign assistance programs.

By last week, only $1.14 billion of the $18.4 billion allocated last year on an emergency basis had been spent. The reasons were said to be contract delays and the growing attacks on infrastructure by the resistance.

Most of the senators talking seemed to be frustrated at the pokey pace of reconstruction.

“This is an extraordinarily ineffective administration procedure,” Lugar said. “It is exasperating for anybody looking at this from any vantage point. We’re in favor of the security aspect, but we’re still also in favor of getting money out to these towns and villages.

“Although we recognize these funds must not be spent unwisely, the slow pace of reconstruction spending means that we are failing to fully take advantage of one of our most potent tools to influence the direction of Iraq.”

The wistful hope for wise use of federal funds in Iraq or elsewhere is likely misplaced. Recent scandals related to Iraqi reconstruction contracts have demonstrated that an $18 billion pot, without adequate checks and accounting procedures, is simply a big party for Halliburton and other administration-favored contractors.

After all this time, much of Iraq is still without electricity on a reliable basis, or safe and adequate supplies of drinking water, not to mention the environmental hazards posed by depleted uranium munitions and other toxins left by the war.

Source: The Boston Globe

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