WASHINGTON: While 225,000 US troops deployed around Iraq are now ready for their commander-in-chief President George W. Bush to give the order to invade, scepticism is growing steadily back home about what Washington will do once its forces reach Baghdad.

Lawmakers in Congress on both sides of the aisle are especially frustrated because they will have to appropriate the money that taxpayers will pay, not only for the invasion itself but also for the occupation afterwards.

That frustration boiled over into real anger on Tuesday when the Pentagon at the last minute cancelled the scheduled appearance before the Senate foreign relations committee of Gen. Jay Garner, who has been tapped to lead the office of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance that will be effectively administering Iraq in the immediate aftermath of any war.

“I pushed, we all pushed (the administration) to give us some sense of (the potential costs of the war and post-war efforts),” said Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel after Garner failed to show up. “No answers. The administration chose not to have witnesses today. No answers. The president was asked in his news conference the other night. No answers.”

“And I think the best that they have come up with is, ‘well, you’ll know about it when we bring up the supplemental (appropriation bill)’. I don’t think that’s a good way to do this.”

Indeed, as the split between Washington and European countries in the debate over a war resolution in the United Nations Security Council has widened over the past 10 days, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed growing concern that Washington may end up footing most of the bill for the recovery and reconstruction of a country of 22 million people.

“Every time (Pentagon chief Donald) Rumsfeld opens his mouth,” said one Senate staff member this week, “I worry that he’s going to say something incredibly stupid about ‘Old Europe’ again and then (French President Jacques) Chirac or (European Union Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Christopher) Patten is going to say, ‘That does it. ‘If the Americans think we’re going to help out with the occupation or reconstruction, they can ask those “new European” countries like Romania and Latvia. I’m sure they’ll be happy to help’.”

The notion that Washington by itself, or even with help from Britain, Spain, and other parts of Rumsfeld’s “new Europe” or a “coalition of the willing”, can afford the costs of occupation and reconstruction was blasted by at least one member of a blue-ribbon task force convened by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in a report released Wednesday. It found that Washington would have to devote a minimum of about 20 billion dollars a year for at least several years to sustain peace and recovery in Iraq.

“The United States can win the war with Iraq alone, or at the head of a narrow coalition,” wrote James Dobbins in a supplementary note to the 58-page report, ‘Iraq: The Day After’. “It can win the peace, however, only with much broader backing”.

“The price of policing Iraq, holding it together, reconstructing its economy and reforming its society goes beyond anything the American taxpayer will or should be ready to bear,” wrote Dobbins, whose expertise derives from his work as special envoy to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo during the tenure of former president Bill Clinton and in Afghanistan under Bush.

The task force, which was headed by former defence secretary James Schlesinger, a Republican who has publicly supported invading Iraq, and former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering, said Washington will have to deploy at least 75,000 troops to stabilise the country and keep the peace, at an estimated cost nearly 17 billion dollars a year, or greater than the entire US annual foreign aid bill.

Dobbins pointed out that such an estimate, which he considered low, would require that every infantryman in the US army spend six months in Iraq out of every 18 to 24-months. “Given other demands on US forces, this is not a commitment America alone can long sustain,” he noted.

The task force stressed that 75,000 soldiers is the minimum figure, and the situation could possibly require as many as 200,000 US peacekeepers. That echoes a recent estimate by the head of the US Army, Eric Shinseki, which was publicly denounced by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as “way off the mark,” but taken far more seriously on Capitol Hill.

US lawmakers are already very concerned about the ballooning federal deficit, which is expected to exceed 300 billion dollars this year, and the growing demands of the US defence budget stemming from the wider “war on terrorism”.

The 300 billion dollar deficit does not include any of the costs incurred by deploying US forces to the Gulf, nor the costs of an actual war. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that simply sending troops and equipment to and from the Gulf will cost nearly 25 billion dollars, and that a month’s combat could cost an additional 10 billion dollars or more.

After a war, the CBO staff said, a US occupation could cost anywhere from one billion dollars to four billion dollars a month, a range that clearly discomfits Congress, including Republicans, who see their hopes for enacting a major tax cut this year sink with every new estimate about the war’s cost.

Congress is also worried that the administration’s failure to produce realistic estimates about the costs of the war and subsequent occupation is creating a false sense in the public that the Iraqi conquest will be a relatively easy affair, on a par with Afghanistan.

“It is not clear to me that the American people understand we are engaged in the long haul if we are to be successful,” said Schlesinger, who called on Bush to be more forthcoming about internal estimates.

Meanwhile, US non-governmental relief groups that have been briefed by administration officials about their plans to ensure that needy people get life-sustaining supplies once a war breaks out have said the plans appear to be “inadequate” and could result in greater suffering.

The groups have also voiced outrage at reports that several US corporations, including Halliburton, Inc., where Vice President Dick Cheney was CEO until his election, have been asked to bid on reconstruction contracts worth nearly one billion dollars that include the provision of emergency water and other supplies, services that are normally carried out by voluntary groups.—Dawn/InterPress News Service.

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