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U.S. Occupation of Iraq Running Over Budget

Republicans in Congress criticize the Bush administration's plan to put off a request for more money until after the election.

By Esther Schrader and Janet Hook
Times Staff Writers

April 22, 2004

WASHINGTON — With bills piling up from the conflict in Iraq, pressure is mounting on war planners in Washington to come up with additional money to fund U.S. efforts there.

Republicans in Congress complained Wednesday that the Bush administration's plan to put off a request for more money until early next year was unrealistic. And the nation's top military official, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers, said the growing violence was pushing the cost of the U.S.-led occupation far over budget, threatening a $4-billion shortfall by late summer.

The occupation is costing about $4.7 billion a month, officials said.

Defense officials are studying their budget, which runs through Sept. 30, to determine whether some money can be moved from purchase programs or other Pentagon accounts, Myers told the House Armed Services Committee.

Myers said the decision to extend the Iraq tours of 20,000 troops would cost the Pentagon about $700 million more over the next three months.

The complaints among Republicans that the administration has failed to own up to the soaring costs of the occupation reflect growing political strains over Iraq and the looming elections. If the administration is indeed forced to ask for more money, Republicans would prefer to see that happen while the election is still months away.

In surprisingly sharp terms, members of the House Armed Services Committee criticized the Bush administration's plan to wait until after the election to seek additional funds.

Visibly angry, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said the Army had told his subcommittee that it had nearly $6 billion in unfunded budget requests. "I think the budget request that is provided to us is short-sighted, and in the case of the Army I think it is outrageous," Weldon said.

Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) told reporters after the hearing that he believed the administration should seek additional funding for Iraq before the fiscal year ends in September. He said he was inclined to include an authorization for $20 billion in his committee's Pentagon authorization bill whether the administration requested it or not.

Hunter said it was clear that the $87 billion appropriated last year was being spent faster than expected. Without more money, the Pentagon will risk being forced to gut other programs to cover Iraq costs.

"The prudent thing to do is to move early with that money rather than later," Hunter said.

Privately, lawmakers said the Pentagon had told Congress it needed more money fast. And, said one lawmaker, "the Pentagon will get it."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), whose committee would handle a request for more funds, signaled that no decision had been made on when to appropriate the funds.

"At all of our hearings on the subject, the administration told us there is adequate money through the end of the fiscal year," Young said. But in light of changing circumstances, he said, "a certain amount of flexibility is always in order. You're still dealing with a lot of unknowns."

Young said he would not even consider additional funding until House-Senate negotiators reached some agreement on the fiscal 2005 budget.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said he sensed election-year politics was a factor in the administration's delay.

"The administration would be well served here to come forward now, be honest about this, because the continuity and the confidence in this policy is going to be required to sustain it," Hagel said.

He said it would cost an additional $50 billion to $75 billion "to sustain us in Iraq for this year."

Other Republicans said Congress would be unlikely to provide additional money unless the administration requested it.

As a political matter, the administration had set the last supplemental spending bill at a higher level than some wanted — the $87 billion passed last year — with the idea that it would last until after the 2004 election.

"I'd be surprised" if the leadership would push for a vote on more money before the election, said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a member of the GOP leadership.

But the administration's decision was made before the recent surge of attacks by Iraqi insurgents forced military commanders to ramp up the intensity of counterattacks.

President Bush, acknowledging the growing controversy over the deterioration in Iraq in recent weeks, said Wednesday that he realized the military situation had been "really rough."

"Roughest on the families of those who lost their lives and those who wonder about the security and safety of their loved ones," Bush said.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters the administration was keeping the door open on the possibility of a supplemental request before the election.

"The decisions should be based on what the commanders in the field feel is necessary," he said.

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said military commanders in Iraq have been telling lawmakers that "they could run short of funds late this summer."

If additional money is not provided, he said, Iraq operations will have to be financed by deferring maintenance in other areas or shifting money from non-deployed troops.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said the Pentagon had proposed shifting $619 million from the defense operations budget to pay for urgent Iraq needs.

And a senior Republican congressional staffer who has been closely involved in the discussions over funding said the soaring costs of fuel to run the Army's aircraft, tanks and trucks in Iraq had put serious stains on the service's budget.

Army officials confirmed that the service told lawmakers that it had identified $6 billion in funding needs that were not addressed in the administration's $402-billion defense budget request for 2005.

The list of unmet needs includes $21.5 million for M-249 squad automatic weapons; $879 million for combat helmets, boots, underwear and other clothing; $956 million for repairing worn equipment; $101 million for replacing equipment lost in combat; and $132 million for adding heavy armor to vehicles.

"These aren't pork barrel projects," Weldon said at the hearing, waving a list of the Army's needs and urging the administration not to wait until after the elections to submit the supplemental request.

"This is the unfunded priority list of the Army."


Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.