- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Iraq’s U.S. ambassador said yesterday that his country still needs time before it can fully finance its own reconstruction effort, despite an oil-export windfall that has lawmakers on Capitol Hill demanding Baghdad pick up more of the tab.

Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie put the cost just of rebuilding his country’s shattered basic infrastructure in the hundreds of billions of dollars, arguing that U.S. critics should not attack his country’s budget choices in a “populist manner.”

“We are willing to pay more and more and, ultimately, to pay all our reconstruction costs,” Mr. Sumaida'ie told reporters and editors at The Washington Times yesterday. “We are not shying away from our responsibility.”

The funding issue has come to the fore as Congress takes up President Bush’s latest spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Baghdad projected to run up a massive budget surplus this year, thanks to $70 billion in oil revenues, congressional Democrats have sharply questioned the administration’s request for some $3 billion in reconstruction, training and equipment funds for Iraq.

Bills now under consideration in both the House and Senate would put new conditions on U.S. reconstruction aid in light of the surplus.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a measure last week that would prohibit the Pentagon from funding any Iraqi reconstruction project costing more than $2 million. The bill would also require Iraq’s government to pay the salaries and training costs of Sunni militias that have been funded by the U.S. military after they turned on al Qaeda and other extremists groups.

“It is unacceptable that U.S. taxpayers continue to bear a burden that the Iraqi government can and should assume,” said committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.

House Democrats have drafted a separate funding bill that would prohibit U.S. aid for rebuilding towns or equipping Iraqi troops unless the Iraqi government matched every dollar, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

While pushing hard for the overall funding bill, the administration already has beat a strategic retreat on some of the issues.

The Pentagon last week deleted a $171 million request to help pay for new police stations in Iraq.

“I heard the committee loud and clear on the need for Iraq to pay for economic and civilian infrastructure,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a letter to Mr. Levin.

But Mr. Sumaida'ie said even with the oil profits, Iraq faces financing, logistical and security problems just in restoring health, sanitation and basic utility services that “collapsed” under Saddam Hussein and the chaotic postwar period.

Iraq is a completely shattered country,” he said. A political exile from his homeland for more than two decades, Mr. Sumaida'ie said, “I did not even recognize Baghdad, the city where I was born, when I returned.”

Iraq’s $14 billion federal budget this year will be devoted largely to paying the salaries of government employees.

“All the funds we can spend are likely to go just to create the basic foundations to rebuild the country,” he said.

A report by Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction Stuart Bowen last week found that Iraq’s ministries spent barely more than half of their capital budgets for 2007, or about $4 billion. The figures were even lower at the provincial level, where officials spent an average of 31 percent of budgets.

Mr. Sumaida'ie acknowledged that billions of dollars of Iraqi reconstruction funds remain unspent, but said government ministers have to balance getting the money out the door against the need for oversight and safeguards against waste and corruption. The country’s shaky security situation has also left many international companies unwilling to bid on contracts the government does offer, he said.

“We have to prepare the ground to make sure we get good value,” he said.

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