WASHINGTON—Two senior Republican senators on Wednesday rebuked the Bush administration over its handling of Iraq, saying its proposal to divert $3.46 billion in reconstruction funds to mostly beef up security showed that U.S. policy is in disarray.
The harsh comments by Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska contrasted with the upbeat assessments of Iraq that President Bush gives as he campaigns for re-election in November.
But their bleak assessment followed by a day a Knight Ridder report that some current and former U.S. officials are worried that Bush's plan for creating a stable democracy in Iraq is in danger of failing.
The proposal to divert the reconstruction aid "does not add up in my opinion to a pretty picture, to a picture that shows that we're winning," Hagel said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. "But it does add up to this: an acknowledgement that we are in deep trouble."
Lugar said the administration could have sought the funding switch months ago, but it dithered amid an upsurge in violence by minority Sunni and majority Shiite insurgents against the government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and U.S.-backed coalition forces.
"We have an emergency problem now. And we had one in July, and we had one before that," he said.
The bloodshed has exposed as "nonsense" assurances that "blithely optimistic" administration officials gave the committee before last year's invasion that U.S. troops would be welcomed in Iraq and would be there for only a short time, said Lugar.
Bush insists that conditions in Iraq are improving despite an expanding insurgency and mounting American and Iraqi casualty tolls. The president has said that a national election, a key element of his goal to create a stable, democratic Iraq, will be held as scheduled by Jan. 31.
Lugar and Hagel spoke during a hearing at which two senior State Department officials presented details of how the administration wants to spend the $3.46 billion that it's proposing to divert from $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds appropriated last year.
"You have inherited a mess, gentlemen," Hagel told the pair, referring to the Pentagon's handover of Iraq policy to the State Department when Iraq's sovereignty was formally restored in June.
About $1.8 billion of the $3.46 billion would go to training and equipping an additional 80,000 members of Iraq's security forces. The rest would pay for boosting oil production, debt relief and local reconstruction projects that would employ thousands of Iraqis.
Congress must approve the administration's request. The bulk of the diverted money would come from large-scale water, sewage and electricity projects.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Bowab said the request involved difficult choices but that bolstering security "is the key building block in promoting successful reconstruction efforts in Iraq."
Lugar said that while he recognized the need to shift the funds, the move could hamper efforts to pacify Iraq.
"If the shift of these funds slows down reconstruction, security may suffer in the long term," he said.
Lugar, Hagel and the committee's senior Democrat, Joseph Biden of Delaware, expressed frustration that only $1.1 billion of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds has been spent.
Large-scale reconstruction projects, which the Pentagon awarded mostly without bid to large U.S. corporations, have been delayed by sabotage and attacks.
"The slow pace of reconstruction spending means we are failing to fully take advantage of one of our most potent tools to influence the direction of Iraq," said Lugar.
Hagel said the slow disbursement of the funds "is beyond pitiful. It's beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous."
The State Department coordinator for Iraq, Ronald Schlicher, agreed that the pace was too slow. But he insisted that there's been progress and said efforts would be made to move faster.
Biden said Sunni insurgents in central Iraq have grown stronger and more sophisticated and have expanded the amount of territory they control.
The United States, said Biden, would have to take serious steps quickly to have any chance of saving Iraq from even worse bloodshed.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040915 Iraq security