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Iraqi prime minister asks for more reconstruction aid

WASHINGTON—Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday asked Congress for more reconstruction money for Iraq and suggested that history would condemn a quick American withdrawal from his blood-soaked nation.

U.S. taxpayers have spent about $300 billion in Iraq so far, with about $22 billion earmarked for reconstruction and other civilian activities, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Al-Maliki's plea came near the end of a two-day Washington visit that brought the problems in Iraq into sharp focus for U.S. policymakers. "Send more billions to Iraq" wasn't a message that many lawmakers welcomed in a congressional election year that could hinge on public attitudes toward Iraq.

An analysis by the Gallup polling organization earlier this week said Iraq "consistently ranks at or near the top" of voters' concerns and "will be a dominant issue" in the elections. Most Americans say they oppose the war and think the United States is losing, but they don't favor an immediate pullout.

Reconstruction costs in Iraq have run higher than expected, primarily because of security-related expenses. A government analysis of about 100 projects last year found that they came in 20 percent to 85 percent over budget.

Steven Kosiak, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a group that monitors defense spending, has estimated that Iraq might need as much as $28 billion more for reconstruction.

Congress completed work on a war-spending bill last month that included nearly $66 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus another $1.5 billion in reconstruction money for Iraq, so President Bush is unlikely to ask for more anytime soon.

Still, everyone acknowledges that the war is sure to cost billions more.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that withdrawal by the end of 2009 would cost another $166 billion, and $368 billion more if U.S. troops stay in Iraq until 2016.

Speaking in Arabic to a joint session of Congress, al-Maliki urged lawmakers to stand behind Iraq.

"Iraq and America both need each other to defeat the terror engulfing the world," he said, as lawmakers listened to an interpreter through headphones. "Trust that Iraq will be the graveyard for terrorism and terrorists, for the good of all humanity."

Al-Maliki didn't request a specific amount, but he suggested that some reconstruction money had been diverted.

"We need your help," he said. "Much of the budget you had allocated for Iraq's reconstruction ended up paying for security firms and foreign companies, whose operating costs were vast. Instead, there needs to be greater reliance on Iraqis and Iraqi companies."

His request came a day after President Bush announced plans to shift more U.S. troops to Baghdad to deal with a surge of sectarian violence.

Al-Maliki received a warm welcome in the crowded House chamber, but some Democrats accused him of glossing over his country's problems. His remarks were briefly interrupted by a protester who shouted anti-war slogans before she was escorted out of the visitors' gallery.

"The situation in Iraq is deteriorating," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "That is the reality, and it is hard to find a reason for optimism."

A small group of Democrats boycotted the session because al-Maliki has criticized Israel's attacks on Lebanon and refused to condemn Hezbollah, the Islamic group that's exchanging fire with Israel.

Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said al-Maliki shouldn't have been invited to speak to a joint session of Congress and that such appearances "should be a rare honor, one accorded to historic international leaders."

"Mr. al-Maliki's time and attention belong in his own country, mobilizing his government and his security forces to assume their responsibilities and relieve our heroic soldiers—including 2,600 Minnesota National Guardsmen and women—of those burdens," Dayton said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., attended the speech but generally withheld applause.

"Why does Iraq have the right to wage battle against terrorists but Israel does not? I don't think his remarks were worthy of enthusiasm or support," she said.

Republicans were more forgiving.

"To say anything constructive toward Israel is difficult and a fight he doesn't need to get into. I think that's asking way too much of him," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. "Why put him in jeopardy on an issue he doesn't have direct control over, when he's got enough problems to deal with."

A closed-door breakfast for congressional leaders turned tense when Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., asked al-Maliki whether he thinks Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Durbin said al-Maliki condemned terrorism in general terms but didn't take a stand on Hezbollah.

Some lawmakers said they were satisfied when al-Maliki's foreign minister told them that Iraq had joined Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in condemning Hezbollah at an Arab League meeting last week in Cairo, Egypt.


(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Rob Hotakainen and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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