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Lawmakers Grill Wolfowitz on Iraq

Senate Foreign Relations panel shows impatience with 'shifting justifications' for war and lack of cost estimates for rebuilding.

July 30, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans and Democrats scolded Bush administration officials Tuesday for refusing to provide cost estimates for rebuilding Iraq and ignoring other threats while insisting that Saddam Hussein's regime played a central role in fomenting worldwide terrorism.

In aggressive, sometimes hostile, questioning of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also accused the administration of misleading Americans in its justifications for going to war in Iraq and on how long U.S. troops will be needed in the country.

"Because of a combination of bureaucratic inertia, political caution and unrealistic expectations left over from before the war, we do not appear to be confident about our course in Iraq," said committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).

Almost three months after President Bush declared that major combat operations in the country had ended, Lugar added, "we still lack a comprehensive plan for how to acquire sufficient resources for the operations in Iraq and how to use them to maximum effect."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the committee, twice got into heated exchanges with Wolfowitz over the question of how much the Iraq operation is costing.

"I think you're going to lose the American people if you don't come forward now and tell them what you know, that [the reconstruction effort is] going to cost tens of billions of American taxpayers' dollars and tens of thousands of American troops for an extended period of time," Biden said, his voice just below a shout.

Referring to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's penchant for saying certain things are "unknowable," Biden admonished Wolfowitz: "Please don't waste our time or yours by saying the future is simply unknowable. Pick a number. Pick an idea."

In more muted tones, Lugar said the administration should supply "at least some idea of what is likely to be required of the American taxpayer."

But Wolfowitz and White House budget director Joshua Bolten held firmly to the administration's position that it is impossible to estimate costs because the situation in Iraq is changing so rapidly.

Bolten said that "for the next couple of months" he expected the cost of maintaining troops in Iraq to stay at about $4 billion per month. However, he declined to estimate the tab after that and predicted the administration would ask for more Iraq funds in a supplemental budget request later this year.

Wolfowitz criticized the Senate for refusing to provide $200 million the Pentagon requested this year to train Iraqi security forces. He suggested that this led directly to the deaths of U.S. soldiers.

Wolfowitz said Iraqis instead of Americans could have guarded the hospital in Baqubah where an attacker dropped a grenade onto soldiers last Saturday, killing three.

The money, intended for training Iraqis for such jobs, was "dropped, apparently because the Congress in its wisdom did not believe that it was necessary," Wolfowitz said.

"I hope that it is clear now why it is necessary," he said. "It is much better to have Iraqis fighting and dying for their country than to have Americans doing the job all by themselves."

The assertion by Wolfowitz was part of his lengthy opening remarks, which focused on atrocities committed by the Hussein regime. He cited U.S. troops' progress in gaining the respect of the Iraqi people, restoring basic services and putting nascent democratic structures in place.

But the attempt to draw lawmakers' support appeared to backfire.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) told Wolfowitz that the evidence of state-sponsored torture under Hussein, while tragic, was just the latest in a series of "shifting justifications" for going to war against Iraq.

Chafee said that in the months leading up to the war, the White House maintained that dislodging Hussein was the only way to prevent the use and spread of weapons of mass destruction. Yet since the war, no such weapons have been found.

"It was a steady drumbeat of 'weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction.' And, Secretary Wolfowitz, in your almost hourlong testimony here this morning, once -- only once did you mention weapons of mass destruction, and that was an ad lib. I don't think it's in any of your written testimony," Chafee said. "And so we're seeing shifting justifications, I think, for what we're doing there."

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) rejected Wolfowitz's statement that "the battle to secure the peace in Iraq is now the central battle of the global war on terror."

"This administration has grossly exaggerated the connection between the war on terrorism and the Iraq situation," Feingold said. On the same day that U.S. troops moved into Baghdad in April, Feingold said, men suspected of being responsible for the attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in 2000 were escaping from a prison in Yemen.

"I would ask you, Secretary Wolfowitz, are you sure we have our eye on the ball?" Feingold asked.

Wolfowitz replied that rebuilding Iraq was one front in a multipronged war against terrorism. "I'm absolutely sure we have our eye on the ball," he said. "And the ball is a global one."

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