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Wolfowitz says American troops could remain in Iraq for years

WASHINGTON—Eight days before U.S. caretakers are scheduled to turn over control of Iraq to an interim government, Pentagon officials told Congress that American soldiers are likely to remain there for years.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the Bush administration's strongest advocates for the invasion, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that it would be inadvisable to set a deadline for the departure of American GIs, who make up the vast majority of a U.N.-sanctioned multinational force.

Wolfowitz also said a continued U.S. presence in Iraq is likely to cost American taxpayers as much as $60 billion through the end of next year, twice what Congress has approved.

"From your description, Mr. Secretary, I don't see an end in sight," observed Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo. "We're stuck."

"We're not stuck, Mr. Skelton," Wolfowitz said.

"Tell us what your measurement is for success," Skelton countered. "People ask me this. I have no answer."

"When it becomes an Iraqi fight, and the Iraqis are prepared to take on the fight, they're prepared to join their security forces. We are prepared to arm and equip them to do it," Wolfowitz responded. " I can't tell you how long that's going to take."

Returning from a four-and-a-half-day trip to Iraq, Wolfowitz said the Iraqis had made recent progress.

On June 30, an interim Iraqi government made up of a president, two deputy presidents, a prime minister and 26 ministers will assume day-to-day governing responsibility from the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer.

A multinational force made up of 140,000 U.S. troops and 23,000 troops from other countries under American command will continue to provide security. An Iraqi army of 35,000 troops will have the option of participating in operations with multinational forces or acting on their own.

Citing Wolfowitz's comments a year ago that Iraqi oil revenue would pay for reconstruction, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., asked how much the war already had cost U.S. taxpayers.

"I would have to do the numbers in my head," Wolfowitz said. "I'd rather not do that. You know it's a lot of money."

Wolfowitz noted that Congress already has approved $119 billion for military and reconstruction expenditures in Iraq, plus a $25 billion budget amendment. He said the administration was likely to ask for another $25 billion to pay for operations through the end of 2005.

Also on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators who just visited Iraq criticized the administration as not doing enough to train Iraqi police and rebuild the country.

Returning sovereignty to the Iraqis next week is a hollow exercise if the new government isn't also given the means to rebuild, said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

The interim government now can't make its people safe or provide reliable electricity, Graham said. Unless it can provide such basics, the Iraqi resistance may grow, he said.

Graham toured Iraq with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden and Graham said the eight weeks of training that police were getting wasn't enough.

"If the insurgents and the terrorists drive out the international community, including us, prematurely, before the Iraqi people have a chance at self-governance, it will be a death sentence on all moderate forces in the Mideast," Graham said.

"We have the capacity to win this war and make Iraq free. The question is, do we have the will? Do we have the will to keep spending the money, the blood and the treasure, and to slow down and take the time?" Graham asked.

The senators also said other countries should increase their support for Iraq's reconstruction.

Biden urged other nations to forgive the bulk of Iraq's $122 billion debt, much of it borrowed from France, Germany, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Debt forgiveness is expected to be hotly debated next week at a reconstruction conference in Istanbul, Turkey. Iraq's lenders have been reluctant to write off significant sums because they think Iraq may be able to repay them from selling its oil.

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(Ackerman reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CONGRESS

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