WASHINGTON – The White House is taking a more direct role in the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan amid growing criticism over the high costs, rising casualties and frustrating setbacks.
A classified memorandum established the Iraq Stabilization Group (search) within the White House under Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser to President Bush. Officials said the move would give the White House more accountability for rebuilding efforts and provide Rice with authority to spur the bureaucracy.
In particular, the move gives the White House stronger control over how the United States spends tens of billions of dollars in the rebuilding process. Bush has asked Congress for $87 billion for reconstruction and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're going to have a lot more resources when that passes," said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan. "We want to, here in Washington, help assist the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority to put those resources to the best possible use."
The memo gives National Security Council (search) teams direct oversight in four areas: counterterrorism, economic issues, political issues and the media. The Pentagon and Coalition Provisional Authority (search) will continue to play the lead role, but the order gives the White House a strong oversight responsibility, officials said.
The new step comes as polls show that doubts are growing about Bush's ability to deal with international crises. A CBS-New York Times poll last week found that 45 percent say they have confidence in Bush's ability on international crises and 50 percent said they do not.
McClellan said creation of the group was not an indication of dissatisfaction with the progress of Iraq's reconstruction. Many Democrats and some Republicans say the administration underestimated the postwar violence and impediments to rebuilding.
"This is just a way to strengthen our assistance to the Coalition Provisional Authority and its efforts," said McClellan. He said that U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer will still report to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon will still be the lead agency.
"It's a new phase, a different phase we're entering now ... to make sure we're putting those resources to the best use," McClellan said.