Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Senators rap White House on Iraq's economy

Senators rap White House on Iraq's economy

By Vicki Allen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Tuesday it will take decades to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure as senators charged the Bush administration had fumbled reconstruction efforts, slowing a U.S. military withdrawal.

Rumsfeld was defending the Pentagon's $439 billion budget request for next year before senators on the Armed Services Committee.

Contrary to forecasts of administration officials before the March 2003 invasion, Rumsfeld said, "It's going to take decades" for Iraq "to get the infrastructure back to where a modern country would have it."

The senators also questioned Pentagon officials on progress in training Iraqi forces, which the administration says is key for withdrawing U.S. troops.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there still is just one battalion able to operate independently, and 60 capable of taking the lead in operations, with support of U.S. forces.

Senators generally backed the plan to boost the Pentagon's budget by nearly 7 percent to $439 billion. In addition, the White House said it will seek another $70 billion this year for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and $50 billion early next year. That would bring the wars' cost to $440 billion, with costs expected near $500 billion by next year's end.

In unusually harsh criticism, Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner, the committee chairman, said the White House has "failed to bring together all of the resources necessary" to improve Iraq's economy and stem the joblessness that he said is fueling the rampant violence and corruption.

Warner said former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz "opined at one time" that Iraq's oil production would pay for most of its rebuilding costs, but instead Warner noted that Iraq's "oil production is slipping."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said he was "troubled by the suggestions" that the White House would not seek new rebuilding money for Iraq on top of the $20 billion so far. "You can cut and run economically as well as you can militarily," he said.

Warner said living conditions must improve through a better infrastructure to stabilize the country, or "it's going to obscure the gains that have been made."

But Rumsfeld said it was up to Iraqis to rebuild their own country to avoid "creating a dependency."

Pace said the U.S. government should make various nonmilitary agencies work together more efficiently and deploy personnel overseas to help in rebuilding.

"General, those are nice words. We've been at this thing over two years now," Warner replied.

After the hearing, Warner told reporters he was considering legislation to force cooperation among federal agencies, similar to legislation that integrated the workings of the military branches.

Rumsfeld also fended off senators' complaints about his plans to restructure the Army National Guard, which some lawmakers said would amount to a cutback.

"The Army is not cutting the National Guard or Reserves. That rumor is false," Rumsfeld said.

The Pentagon plan had called for reducing the Army National Guard's authorized troop level from the 350,000 to 335,000, which is the actual current force.

Facing a wall of congressional opposition, the Pentagon proposed keeping in escrow money to pay for a 350,000 force-level to be used if the Guard can recruit to that level.

(additional reporting by Charles Aldinger)