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Bremer pushes for $87 billion in appearance before Senate panel

WASHINGTON—U.S. senators pressed the Bush administration Monday to seek more help from other countries in reconstructing Iraq as the United States' top administrator there urged swift approval of $87 billion more for postwar spending to "give us an edge against the terrorists."

L. Paul Bremer, whom President Bush appointed to oversee Iraq's reconstruction, offered a candid if not totally upbeat assessment of conditions in Iraq one day before Bush was to make his case for international cooperation before the United Nations.

"The reality of foreign troops on the streets is starting to chafe," Bremer acknowledged before the Senate Appropriations Committee. "Some Iraqis are beginning to regard us as occupiers and not as liberators."

Yet he staunchly opposed recent calls, particularly by French President Jacques Chirac, to transfer government control to the Iraqi people immediately.

"I firmly believe that such haste would be a mistake," he said. "To do so would invite economic collapse followed by political extremism and a return to terrorism."

He said the administration had a seven-step plan for full Iraqi sovereignty. Three of the steps—appointing a governing council, selecting a committee to write a new constitution and appointing government ministers—already have been accomplished. The remaining steps are writing and ratifying a constitution, electing a new government and transferring power to the new government.

"Short-cutting that process, in my view, would be dangerous," Bremer said.

Senators from both parties asked Bremer what the United States was doing to protect U.S. troops and how long it would take for the country to become more self-sufficient. The questioning reflected growing anxiety about the rising American death toll in Iraq and the financial commitment needed to secure the country and move it toward political and economic stability in the face of continuing guerrilla attacks and popular discontent.

While some Republicans gently probed Bremer for answers, Democrats were far more aggressive, accusing the administration of worsening budget deficits by pursuing a unilateral policy in Iraq.

"We obviously cannot accomplish this task alone; yet that is exactly what we continue to attempt," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the senior Democrat on the committee.

Congress is expected to approve the money, despite polls that indicate weak public support for such a large expenditure. But Democrats have made it clear that they will put administration officials through a tough examination before voting.

The most contested portion of the spending request, which also includes money for military operations and reconstruction in Afghanistan, is the $20.3 billion that Bremer would direct for reconstruction in Iraq. The remainder covers military operations in both countries.

Democrats accused Bush of increasing the federal budget deficit to pay for aid projects for Iraq that they say his administration has denied to communities in the United States. Shortly after Bremer boasted that the highest marginal rate in Iraq's new tax system is 15 percent, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., pounced:

"We will have taxpayers in this country paying a much higher tax rate on income than in Iraq, and then use the (U.S. taxpayers') money to invest in exactly the sort of things we're debating about in this country: water, communications, transportation, infrastructure."

Bremer rebuffed Dorgan's suggestion that, instead of grants, Iraq should receive loans backed by its vast oil reserves. Bremer said Iraq was carrying a $200 billion debt incurred by Saddam Hussein. He said that by 2005, oil revenue should begin to make Iraq self-sufficient.

"It has been our view that we need to help carry them across the bridge of 2004," Bremer said.

House and Senate committees have scheduled at least seven hearings on the $87 billion request. Debate on the Senate floor could begin as early as next week, with final Senate passage scheduled before it takes a weeklong recess Oct. 5. The House of Representatives aims to finish the measure by mid-October.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Paul Bremer