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Iraq begs nations to send promised aid

TOKYO—Iraqi officials on Wednesday begged foreign donors to deliver aid to Iraq rapidly, asserting that the nation isn't in as much chaos as it appears on TV newscasts but that its march to democracy may be in peril without outside help.

The officials promised that all areas of Iraq, no matter how troubled, would participate in nationwide elections by late January.

Participants at a two-day Tokyo meeting of donor nations debated how to deliver aid, even as Iraqi officials urged them not to be daunted by near-daily bombings and attacks.

"Please do not delay. The time to make firm commitments is now. Honor your pledges now," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh told an opening session.

Saleh acknowledged that the "horror of terrorism is destroying lives" in Iraq, but he said that turmoil doesn't afflict all parts of the country.

"Despite the scenes of calamity portrayed on the world's TV screens, many of Iraq's provinces are secure and ready for economic transformation," Saleh said.

Only three of Iraq's 18 provinces face serious disorder, added Planning Minister Mahdi al-Hafidh.

Nonetheless, a U.S. official in Baghdad working on Iraq's reconstruction projects said Wednesday that security concerns are slowing down reconstruction efforts. Less money is going to reconstruction and there are fewer staffers for projects, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Officials had slated 110,000 workers for reconstruction projects, but they're using only 85,000.

They also initially set aside 30 percent of funds for overhead costs such as security. But security costs are driving that percentage to as high as 50 percent in some areas of the country.

When asked how many major coalition projects have been completed, the official couldn't say. He mentioned that officials have rehabilitated an oil pipeline.

Security problems in Iraq continued on Wednesday. In Baghdad, four U.S. soldiers were killed in two attacks. Three of them died when a roadside bomb exploded on the city's east side. Another soldier was killed just past dawn Wednesday in an explosion. In Mosul, two soldiers also were killed.

Officials said they're bracing for a surge in attacks starting Friday, when the holy month of Ramadan begins.

Alarmed by a seemingly deteriorating security situation, many nations and lending agencies have disbursed little of the $32 billion or so in pledges made to Iraq a year ago at a Madrid meeting. Washington pledged $18.4 billion of that sum but has delivered only $1.4 billion.

"We took, I think, longer than was necessary to get our act together, prior to turning over sovereignty" to the Iraqi interim government on June 28, said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in Tokyo.

In recent weeks, he added, Washington has been "pushing the money out the door."

Other governments and lending agencies have disbursed only $1.3 billion of the monies pledged at the Madrid conference, U.S. officials said.

Iraqi officials also called for help with the "crushing burden" of the nation's $125 billion foreign debt, asking for forgiveness from obligations accumulated by the Saddam Hussein regime, which was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion last year.

"Much of this debt is to countries that armed and supported that outlaw regime," Saleh said. Armitage echoed the point, saying that "for 30 years, Iraq was a criminal enterprise more than it was a country."

The group of seven developed nations known as the G-7 has pledged to work out a strategy for debt forgiveness by the end of the year. Armitage said at least $60 billion is likely to be forgiven.

Participants said the meeting isn't designed to win new promises of assistance but to analyze the Iraqi situation and determine how to deliver aid.

"This is a stock-taking conference," said Christiaan Poortman, regional vice president for the World Bank.

Even so, Iran's delegate made a public offer of $10 million and Kuwait said it would accelerate millions of dollars in aid. Envoys of other countries listened as Iraqi officials appealed to them to use Iraqi contractors to deliver aid if foreign personnel fear living in Baghdad. They said a strong system to prevent corruption was in place.

Recently, the Bush administration asked Congress to shift $3.4 billion from water and electricity projects in Iraq to help boost security.

Iraqi officials said they understood the need for the shift but they haven't yet found new donors to pay for programs to increase potable water, expand electricity services and broaden education and social welfare programs.

Saleh said such programs are critical to combating hopelessness among youth.

"Everyone at this conference knows that illiterate and virtually unemployable youth are the prey on which terrorist vultures feed," Saleh said.


(Youssef reported from Baghdad.)


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