Security at Any Cost?

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Friday, October 14, 2005; 6:00 AM

Even as President Bush proclaims that Iraqis are moving toward independence, the war and occupation there is growing more costly.

A new study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service suggests that the war in Iraq is now costing the United States $6 billion a month, up from about $5 billion a month last year.

According to the report, which counts funds for defense, foreign aid and reconstruction, monthly spending on the Iraq war is up 19 percent in the current fiscal year compared with last year, while spending in Afghanistan is down about 8 percent.

"Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, CRS estimates that the administration has allocated a total of about $357 billion for military operations, reconstruction, embassy costs, and various programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for enhanced security at defense bases," the report says. It was authored by Amy Belasco, a specialist in national defense at CRS, the public policy research arm for members of Congress.

President Bush has repeatedly justified the costs of the Iraq war as essential to the security of the United States and the long-term stability of the Middle East. Asked on Thursday to respond to the CRS report, White House spokesman Trent Duffy referred to Bush's Oct. 6 speech on terrorism and Iraq at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

"Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now," Bush said. "This is a dangerous illusion, refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources? Having removed a dictator who hated free peoples, we will not stand by as a new set of killers, dedicated to the destruction of our own country, seizes control of Iraq by violence."

Another administration official, who asked to not be named because he lacks authority to speak on the record, said the CRS numbers might give the false impression that costs are spiraling because the resistance is accelerating. But this official said that much of the spending is for reconstruction costs and procurement -- replacing and fixing equipment -- and that costs related directly to military actions have remained relatively flat.

Yet no matter how the spending breaks down, the fact is that increased costs come at a time of extraordinary strain on the federal budget, made even worse recently in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And even though the Bush administration seeks to rally support for the war efforts, a number of recent polls measure a rising discontent in the electorate.

Furthermore, the Associated Press reported this week that a separate study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded it will be difficult for the Pentagon to sustain current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan without rotating troops into the war zone more frequently and using more National Guard brigades. And even those steps will not be adequate long-term solutions, the report said.

The CBO study echoed earlier reports suggesting that if current combat demands continue, the Army will have serious problems keeping enough soldiers trained and ready.

News this week that a key Iraqi Sunni group has agreed to support a new constitution that will be voted on over the weekend would seem to be a major victory for the Bush administration and pro-democracy Iraqis. But the development came amid continuing carnage throughout Iraq and the release of an al Qaeda letter outlining the terror group's plans for what it sees as the inevitable American withdrawal.

Given that Bush touts the war in Iraq as central to America's mission of fighting terrorism, and given that Pentagon officials continue to report that Iraqi forces are largely unprepared to assume responsibility for that country's security, the White House will face continued pressure to maintain the costly occupation even amid growing public calls for troops to be withdrawn.

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