WASHINGTON – Iraq's civilian leaders want more control over the $20.3 billion in U.S. reconstruction money that the Bush administration is seeking from Congress, the interim head of the Iraqi Governing Council (search) said Tuesday.
The push by Ahmad Chalabi (search) and other governing council members for greater political and financial control has raised concerns among Bush administration officials reluctant to turn over billions of dollars to an unelected group.
"We make no claims on these funds at all," Chalabi said in an Associated Press interview on a visit to Washington. "What we say is we should have further consultations with them on what projects the money will be spent on."
Chalabi said Iraqi bankers and finance officials should have an equal voice running the financing of the country's postwar reconstruction. "We would like to enhance the consultation process," Chalabi said. Iraq's governing council "would like to have more of a say on how the $20 billion is spent."
Overall, the Bush administration asked Congress for an $87 billion package for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. About $20.3 billion would go to the Coalition Provisional Authority (search) in Iraq, headed by American occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer III.
Senior Bush administration officials have said repeatedly in recent days that they will not cede control of the money to a group of unelected officials. The governing council members were picked by Bremer's coalition authority.
Some U.S. officials also have long been concerned about the prospect of Chalabi's controlling money for Iraq. The longtime Iraqi exile, a former banker, was convicted of fraud in absentia in Jordan in 1992 in a banking scandal and sentenced to 22 years in jail. He has repeatedly denied the charges.
The $20 billion slated for reconstruction projects has proved the more contentious part of the $87 billion that Bush seeks, with even GOP senators showing signs of unease and discussing the prospect of providing at least part of it as loans instead.
Chalabi, whose term as rotating president of the council ends Wednesday, said Tuesday after meeting with lawmakers that a loan "would be an added burden on the Iraqi people, ... and it would also show that the United States was less than sincere on the issue of freedom."
Chalabi said in the AP interview that some Iraqi ministers provided advice to Bremer on reconstruction priorities, but overall the process of compiling needs was conducted very quickly by the Americans with little Iraqi involvement.
Senate Minority leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters the Iraqis told him they had not been consulted about the administration's package or given an opportunity to express their views. The Iraqis told Congress there should be many changes, and "we share that view," Daschle said.
Chalabi, the head of an anti-Saddam Hussein group called the Iraqi National Congress (search), had significant, and controversial, influence on America's Iraq policy before the war, through his contacts in Washington. Chalabi and defectors presented by his group were among key sources for U.S. intelligence that claimed Saddam had chemical and biological weapons before the United States and Britain invaded in March. No such weapons have been found during the six weeks of major combat that drove Saddam from office or subsequently.
Chalabi continued to insist Tuesday that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but he offered no evidence to back up that assertion.
He foresees that U.S. forces will be needed in Iraq for a long time to protect the country from unfriendly neighbors. But Chalabi insisted they should be kept in garrisons for their protection, and Iraqi security forces should take a greater role in protecting Iraqi civilians.
"American forces, as quickly as we can, should not be in the streets," he said.
The United States so far has trained only about 6,000 members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, although some of them already are patrolling and doing other security work with American troops.
Chalabi also said he would like the United States to establish permanent military bases in Iraq. He stressed that was his opinion, not necessarily the council's.
Iraq has excellent flying weather and several good airports, Chalabi said, noting U.S. air bases in nearby Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar and a recently closed base in Saudi Arabia.
In the meantime, the Bush administration's hope that the Iraqis could write a constitution in about six months' time could go by the wayside.
In Baghdad, an Iraqi committee struggling to come up with a method for choosing a constitutional convention decided Tuesday to offer several options, including elections, which one council member said could take as long as 18 months to prepare.
"We are having a difficult time," Chalabi acknowledged. "We want a constitution which is acceptable to all faiths and origins. ... We want to do that no matter how long that takes."
At the State Department Tuesday, spokesman Richard Boucher said, "It is ultimately for the Iraqis to decide how quickly they can do this."
Still, Boucher said, "We think it can be done in six months."
The Iraqis also had an unannounced meeting with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser.