Monday, September 8, 2003

President Bush’s congressional request for $87 billion to pay for the war against terrorism includes hundreds of millions for lifesaving body armor and heavily armored Humvees to protect U.S. forces.

A senior administration official in Baghdad said $300 million will be spent on body armor designed to help GIs survive the sort of sniper fire that has claimed dozens of American lives in recent months.

“This is a better form than what we bought in the past,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That’s what we needed.”

Another $140 million will be spent on what soldiers call “up-armored” Humvees, which can better withstand hits from mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

“This was an assessment made based on the situation on the ground,” the official said.

The body armor and Humvees are part of the $66 billion that Mr. Bush has requested for military expenditures on Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries during the next year. In an address to the nation on Sunday, he also asked Congress for $21 billion in reconstruction funds, almost all of which would be earmarked for Iraq.

Several senior Bush officials said the administration underestimated the cost of rebuilding Iraq and was unprepared for the release of prisoners, who are adding to the chaos.

“The level of decay and underinvestment in the Iraqi infrastructure was worse than, I think it’s fair to say, anyone on the outside anticipated,” said a senior administration official in Washington.

A second official in Baghdad added: “We were all surprised by how neglected, brittle and fragile the infrastructure was here. It is really difficult to exaggerate how chronic the underinvestment was.”

Still, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the $87 billion expenditure will not deter Mr. Bush from trying to make his tax cuts permanent. Nor will it prevent him from reaching his goal of slashing the deficit in half over the next five years, he said.

The deficit for fiscal 2004, which was estimated in July at $475 billion, will grow by $50 billion to $60 billion because of the new request by Mr. Bush.

“We continue to believe the deficit is manageable,” the presidential spokesman told reporters at the White House. “We have a plan to address it, and we’re working to address it.”

The plan involves holding congressional spending to 4 percent and counting on future tax cuts to shrink deficits, not expand them. The administration believes the $1 trillion saved by taxpayers during the next decade by making the cuts permanent would be offset by new tax revenues generated by increased commerce.

Meanwhile, Democrats demanded a detailed explanation of how the administration plans to spend the $87 billion.

“President Bush owes the American people a full accounting of what has already been spent in Iraq and a detailed plan for future spending,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “American taxpayers deserve to know how this spending will affect our ability to address the unmet needs in our own country.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, plans to offer an amendment that would condition the requested funds on the president providing Congress with a full report answering key questions, including how many troops will be needed and how long they will occupy Iraq.

Congress already provided a $79 billion wartime supplement in the spring.

The new request is “a public admission of a huge miscalculation on the part of the administration,” said the House Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin.

“They were off by $90 billion,” said Mr. Obey, noting that when Congress asked for long-term cost estimates in February, the administration downplayed the need for them and said U.S. troops would be welcomed with open arms.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, said “the White House appears to have finally acknowledged what many of us have understood from the beginning: It is going to take huge amounts of money, a long-term commitment and substantial help from the international community to restore order to Iraq.”

Republicans disputed the Democrats’ assessment.

“These folks must have forgotten what the president has said all along, which is that this is going to be a long war on terror and costly,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican. “Nobody ever said that this was going to be over quickly or this was going to be cheap or easy.”

Mr. Kyl said that $87 billion is “more than I would like to have to give,” but that it was necessary.

“We were pushed into the war on terror,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican. “We have no choice but to win the war on terror, and you don’t win a war on the cheap.”

Republicans pledged to move the request as soon as it is formally sent to Capitol Hill, and lawmakers in both parties said Congress would likely provide the funds.

“It is my intention to aggressively expedite the president’s request,” said House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican. “We have troops in harm’s ways, and we should provide them every resource available to ensure their safety.

“I fully expect this Congress will roll over and give them what they want,” he said.

Mrs. Pelosi said the troops will receive “whatever resources” they need, but that the president’s infrastructure request will face “a higher level of scrutiny” from Congress.

The cost of rebuilding Iraq was not the only miscalculation the administration acknowledged yesterday. Saddam Hussein’s massive release of prisoners was “the other issue we didn’t plan for,” an administration official said.

“Shortly before the war, Saddam released over 100,000 criminals from prisons. He basically emptied out the prisons,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“And they are some of the contributors to the sabotage that is currently being subjected to the infrastructure of the country,” the official said. “It continues to create problems for us.”

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