WASHINGTON – President Bush spoke with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany on Wednesday about his administration's decision to bar firms based in countries that oppose the Iraq war from bidding on contracts for Iraqi reconstruction projects.
The three countries were angered by Washington's new policy, which shuts them out of bidding for $18.6 billion in reconstruction projects.
French President Jacques Chirac (search), German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) raised the contracting issue in the talks, said White House spokesman Sean McCormack. Bush "indicated he'd keep lines of communication open," McCormack said.
Other White House officials made it clear the administration has no intention of reconsidering the policy.
The three phone calls initiated by the White House were planned before the tempest on contracting erupted, McCormack said.
Bush called the leaders about "the need to restructure and reduce Iraq's crushing debt load," McCormack said. The talks came as Bush prepared to send former Secretary of State James Baker abroad, probably next week, to jawbone other countries on reducing Iraq's debt.
The president's calls came on a day when the contracting dispute prompted Russia, Iraq's biggest creditor, to threaten to take a harder line on Baghdad's debts.
The new contracting policy was not meant to punish opponents of the Iraq invasion, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday.
"Nobody had the intent of being punitive when this was being developed" as the policy, said Larry Di Rita, spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Di Rita said it was designed to encourage more countries to join the U.S.-led coalition; those not now in the coalition may qualify as bidders for the contracts by contributing troops or simply declaring themselves members of the coalition, he said.
"This is not a fixed, closed list," he said. "This is not meant to be exclusive. This is meant to be forward looking and potentially expansive."
He said it would be a welcome gesture if a country decided to join the coalition, even if it simply offered public support by stating its intention to join without sending troops to Iraq.
"That is not nothing," he said. "That involves going to parliaments or going to publics and saying, `We're with the coalition in Iraq,' (knowing) it's controversial, it's dangerous, it's untidy and it's going to be for a long time."
Di Rita said the government determined that it was in the national security interest of the United States to restrict the contract bidding because it would encourage more countries to join the coalition. Under U.S. contracting law, the government had to cite a reason why it would be in the public interest not to open the bidding competition to all companies worldwide, he said.
Di Rita also said that although companies in France, Germany, Russia and other countries that oppose the war cannot be prime contractors on the reconstruction projects, they can be subcontractors.
The Pentagon on Wednesday also announced a delay in starting the bidding process for the 26 contracts, which had been scheduled to begin Wednesday.
The delay was to allow officials to standardize the wording of all 26 contract proposals, said Maj. Joe Yaws, a Pentagon spokesman. The delay had nothing to do with the controversy over the restrictions on which countries may participate, Yaws said.
"We're moving as quickly as we can, but we want to get it right," Yaws said.