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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Security Gains Priority on the U.S. Funding List

More than $3 billion for reconstruction may be diverted. 'If a place is not safe to build a sewer system, you can't spend the money,' Powell says.

September 05, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is preparing to seek congressional approval to divert $3.3 billion earmarked for reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure into programs focused mainly on establishing law and order.

The move comes against a backdrop of steadily deteriorating public security in Iraq as it approaches a crucial first round of elections set for January.

Those working on the changes said the proposed reallocation amounted to nearly one-fifth of the $18.4 billion Congress approved in November to rebuild Iraq. They said the shift would delay electricity, water and sewage projects -- all crucial to restoring Iraq's economy and building public support for the struggling interim government.

Instead, the money would go to an array of other programs, including $1.8 billion to strengthen the government's shaky security organizations and additional funds to reduce unemployment. In a country where idle men with little hope for work make easy recruits for an increasingly virulent insurgency, job creation is closely linked to improved security.

In part, the changes reflect a reordering of priorities after the June 28 transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority that administered the nation after the fall of President Saddam Hussein.

That shift left U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, rather than CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer III, the highest-ranking American in the country.

At another level, however, the move underscores the administration's assessment that substantial changes are necessary to control an insurgency that has continued to grow in strength and sophistication despite U.S. military efforts to contain it.

Officials at the State Department working on the reconstruction revisions said the shift in focus was part of a realization that funding even the most important projects made little sense if conditions on the ground prevented their completion.

"The first priority for our effort right now has to be security," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a group of reporters last week.

"If a place is not safe to build a sewer system, you can't spend the money."

The revised spending plan calls for adding 45,000 recruits to the national police force, raising 20 more battalions for the current 42-battalion Iraqi national guard, and beefing up the force that patrols Iraq's long frontiers to reduce illegal traffic, including armed fighters crossing over from countries such as Iran and Syria.

Those familiar with the reallocation said new money also was being proposed for two other security organizations -- a paramilitary force to deal with civil threats to public order and an elite unit to guard dignitaries in much the way the Secret Service protects leading members of the American government.

The shift of priorities, initially drawn up at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, is expected to be reviewed at a meeting this week in Washington of senior officials from several government agencies before it is sent to Capitol Hill for final approval.

There is no sign of major opposition to the changes, and those familiar with the issue predicted that Congress probably will ratify the revised plan by the end of this month.

"There will be a lot of questions asked and there may be a hearing, but in general people want to be receptive to this," said a congressional aide who requested anonymity.

"There's a recognition that the realities [in Iraq] are much different than they were last fall" when Congress approved the budget.

Experts tracking developments in Iraq said the Bush administration seemed to have little choice but to pour more resources into stabilizing the country.

"It's worth an attempt because there aren't any other options," said Daniel Neep, who heads the Middle East program at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. "It's pie in the sky to think things are going to get better anytime soon."

Bathsheba Crocker, an Iraq specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agreed that "the need to get things stabilized" was a top priority.

But she noted that previous U.S. efforts to recruit and train Iraqi security forces had been beset by problems, including the uneven quality of the recruits and inadequate training.

The case of units from the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a precursor to the Iraqi national guard, that were sent to quell an uprising in the Euphrates River town of Fallouja this year and refused to fight is often cited as a leading example of this problem.

"My worry is that all this new money on security will get us more of what we already have that's not working all that well," Crocker said.

She suggested that at least some new security forces could be raised and operated under the control of local government administrations -- a move that she said could speed deployment, build greater responsibility at the grass-roots level, increase a sense of public safety and possibly undercut support for locally based insurgents.

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