Congress Debates $100 Billion Iraq Cost

by Paul Jelinek

Congress Debates $100 Billion Iraq Cost
By PAULINE JELINEK, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - As the costs of fighting and rebuilding in Iraq keep mounting by the billions, lawmakers and policy makers are debating how much more will be needed and whether money used so far was well spent.

Congress and its auditors are looking at amounts still required as the campaign moves well into its second year. One congressional committee has looked at allegations of war profiteering by private contractors. And with the State Department now in charge of American activities in Iraq ? instead of the Pentagon ? officials there said Thursday that they think reconstruction money could be better spent creating Iraqi jobs than on big-ticket infrastructure projects.

At least $100 billion already has been spent or is in the pipeline for the now 16-month-old campaign, according to Defense Department figures.

That's $67.7 billion obligated for military expenses as of March, when the last figures were available, and an estimated $16 billion since then, based on spending at a rate of about $1 billion a week. Another $18.6 billion has been approved but largely unspent for reconstruction.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee worried Thursday that already slow U.S. progress on Iraq reconstruction could be delayed further by a spending review the State Department is conducting.

"This is exasperating that we're still reviewing at this stage," said committee Chairman Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., urging the State Department to "get on with it."

A former senior security adviser in the occupation authority told the committee that a key reason Iraqis haven't helped the coalition against the increasingly violent insurgency has been their resentment over slow progress in solving soaring unemployment and in improving services and living conditions.

Such grass-roots support is needed even more now that Saddam Hussein's loyalists have become more dispersed and embedded and international fighters have infiltrated the country with their own well-developed techniques of suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, said David Gompert, who was senior security adviser to former occupation head J. Paul Bremer.

"In fact I would say that the current threat cannot be defeated militarily without much stronger support from the Iraqi people," said Gompert.

Among a list of errors that officials believe the occupation authority made was to focus too much on large infrastructure projects.

Starting up more labor-intensive reconstruction projects would have helped to "soak up some of the unemployment," said Gompert.

Lawmakers and others have long criticized the snail's pace at which occupation officials spent more than $18 billion Congress approved for reconstruction last year. To date only $458 million has been spent, officials said, partly due to infighting and bureaucratic red tape.

The State Department ? which took the U.S. reins from the Pentagon after the occupation authority was dissolved and sovereignty returned to Iraqis last month ? is reviewing spending with an eye toward getting the assistance out faster and maximizing job opportunities for Iraqis, said Ron Schlicher, the department's Iraq coordinator.

Late Thursday, Congress overwhelmingly approved an additional $25 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 7 percent more for the rest of the Pentagon's programs in a $417.5 billion defense bill. The Senate approved the measure 96-0 and the House shipped it to President Bush with a 410-12 vote.

After Congress gave the Bush administration $87 billion last November for Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House began this year insisting it would need no extra money until 2005, a move critics said was to delay a full disclosure of costs until after November's election. Under congressional pressure, the White House in May requested $25 billion to start using during the last three months of 2004.

Thursday's action around Capitol Hill came a day after auditors reported the Defense Department will need an additional $12.3 billion to get through September due to worse-than- expected violence in Iraq as well as continuing campaigns in Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism.

That $12.3 billion figure was in a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, which was formerly called the General Accounting Office.

It was triple what defense officials said in April they'd would need to make it through September. But lawmakers of both parties said at the time that the projection seemed low, so were not surprised by Wednesday's report.

Also Thursday, the House Committee on Government Reform called former and current employees of Halliburton Co. subsidiary KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown and Root) to testify on contracting problems in Iraq.

Defense auditors have criticized the company for inadequate cost estimating and poor accounting and documentation as it provided meals and other support to troops and ran oil field operations in southern Iraq. Democrats have accused Halliburton, which Vice President Dick Cheney once headed, of war profiteering.

"Halliburton is gouging the taxpayer," Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the committee, charged at the hearing.

Alfred V. Neffgen, chief operating officer for government operations of KBR, defended his company, saying it has performed well in the deadly war zone.

"Never has any contractor worked in as difficult and dangerous a situation as we do in Iraq," he said, noting that 42 employees of the company or its prime subcontractors had been killed.

Copyright - 2004 The Associated Press