Senate Panel Moves to Shift Costs of War to Iraq

Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the House may take similar action.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the House may take similar action. (Melissa Golden - Getty Images)
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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

With energy prices soaring and the federal deficit approaching $400 billion, senators from both parties moved yesterday to force Iraq to shoulder more financial responsibility for its reconstruction and self-defense.

On a unanimous vote taken late Wednesday night and announced yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved legislation that would prohibit the Defense Department from funding any reconstruction or infrastructure program that costs more than $2 million.

Under the plan, Iraq also would have to pay to train and equip its security forces and provide the salaries of Sunni-dominated "Sons of Iraq" security groups. In addition, the administration would have to negotiate cost-sharing agreements for U.S.-Iraqi joint military operations, with an eye toward Iraq picking up the tab for items such as fuel.

Senators said they would move later this month to expand those provisions and bar any federal agency -- including the State Department -- from financing large-scale Iraqi rebuilding projects.

"The American taxpayers are paying for too many things . . . that the Iraqis ought to pay for out of their surplus," said Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). "They export 2 million barrels of oil a day. That oil brings in about $120 a barrel. It is unconscionable, it is inexcusable, it makes no common sense for a country that has that kind of wealth and that kind of surplus in our banks and their banks to be sending us the tab."

Senators from both parties said the effort would save taxpayers billions of dollars over time and they hailed the committee's vote as the initial step in what may become Congress's first successful effort to force a change in White House war policy.

"This is the first significant bipartisan change in our policy toward Iraq," added Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

In a war that has cost well over half a trillion dollars, the savings to U.S. taxpayers are likely to be relatively modest. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday that the United States is "pretty much out of the business of very large reconstruction projects in Iraq" anyway, although just last month, the Defense Department transferred $420 million from other accounts to pay for some.

The U.S. military currently pays about $300 a month to each of the 90,000 Sons of Iraq security personnel, but officials say they hope the Iraqi government will take over the contracts by the end of the year. The original plan was for the overwhelmingly Sunni Sons of Iraq to be incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces, but the Shiite-majority government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has resisted hiring them.

More recently, the U.S. command has said that only about 20,000 should be added to the security forces -- nearly all of them in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

Any savings would be swamped by the war spending bill moving toward passage later this month. That measure, being drafted by House and Senate Democratic leaders, could top $200 billion.

It could include the $108 billion Bush requested for the remainder of this fiscal year, $70 billion requested for the first months of next year, and as much as $20 billion in domestic spending on veterans' education benefits, unemployment insurance extensions and other Democratic priorities.

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