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‘Significant forces’ will remain in Iraq

WASHINGTON — Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Thursday that “significant forces” from the United States probably will remain in Iraq through the end of next year.

Pressed by House Democrats about whether the administration planned to withdraw U.S. troops right before the 2004 presidential election, Wolfowitz assured them that no decisions were being made on political grounds.

“These are national security decisions, they have to be made on that basis,” he said.

Wolfowitz said that doesn’t mean “we’re not trying to, in fact, get more Iraqis on the front lines, get them dying for their country so fewer Americans have to.”

While he declined to estimate how long troops would have to remain, Wolfowitz said “certainly no one I know believes that we are not going to be in Iraq with significant forces right through the end of next year.”

Wolfowitz appeared before the House Armed Services Committee with the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and other Pentagon officials. They were seeking support for President Bush’s proposal for $87 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was initially questioned about the length of the commitment by the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Ike Skelton, of Missouri. Skelton said Bremer had told him during the congressman’s recent trip to Iraq that the U.S. mission could be completed in four or five years. The congressman said a general told him it could be completed in two years and that “I understand there was a recent meeting within the administration that a decision is being made to withdraw our forces in late spring of next year.”

Wolfowitz stressed the difficulty of making such predictions and said “we will be there until the job is done.”

Bremer was speaking at three congressional hearings yesterday, his fourth consecutive day on Capitol Hill as the administration’s main salesman for the $87 billion proposal.

Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Bremer rejected suggestions by Democratic and Republican lawmakers that the United States offer loans or loan guarantees to cover part of the proposal for rebuilding Iraq.

Bremer said Iraq already has too much debt and will need the revenue for reconstruction. Using it as collateral for a loan could create the appearance that “we are in some way taking a lien against oil revenues and therefore that’s why we fought the war,” Bremer said.

But committee members said Americans have already paid a high prices for Iraq.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, “Wouldn’t it give the Iraqi people more of an investment in their own infrastructure for us to structure” as a long-term loan the part of the spending bill used for rebuilding?

Democrats have accused the administration of trying to ram the plan through Congress without giving lawmakers enough time to consider it. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., urged Bremer to “use your good authorities to impress upon this administration the need to slow down this train.”

Senate leaders have said they hope to begin floor debate next week. But the Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., told Byrd that he believed the leadership was trying to work out a schedule that would satisfy Republicans and Democrats.


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