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Rumsfeld Pushes $91 Billion Defense Request


American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were the subject of discussions today on Capitol Hill. Top leaders from the Departments of Defense and State made a joint appearance to push the Bush administration's latest emergency funding request. Most of the $91 billion would support the wars.

As NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports, the administration is facing growing consternation on Capitol Hill over the cost of the wars and the widening sectarian strife in Iraq.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

The administration is arguing for the supplemental funding during an extremely violent period in Iraq. Hundreds of people have been killed in sectarian reprisals since an attack on a Shiite mosque on February 22. In today's hearing by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, asked, how can Congress be assured that the new funding won't be used to put U.S. troops in the middle of a civil war? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld answered.

Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense): Senator, I can say that certainly it is not the intention of the military commanders to allow that to happen.

O'HARA: Byrd then demanded to know what the Pentagon plans to do if there is a civil war. Again, Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr. RUMSFELD: The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur, to have the, from a security standpoint, have the Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they're able to.

O'HARA: Rumsfeld did not say what American troops would do if Iraqi security forces could not suppress a civil war. The defense secretary told the committee that the key to avoiding a civil war is for Iraqis to push ahead and form a unified national government. Rumsfeld appeared before the committee with General John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under questioning, Abizaid acknowledged that the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated.

General JOHN ABIZAID (U.S. Central Command): There's no doubt that the sectarian tensions are higher than we've seen, and it is of great concern to all of us.

O'HARA: Abizaid said he believed that the nature of the fighting is changing from an insurgency to sectarian violence. But he said he thinks it can be controlled by Iraqi and U.S-led coalition forces. This emergency supplemental request includes $5.9 billion for training Iraqi forces, something the Pentagon says is key to any U.S. troop withdrawal. But yesterday the House Appropriations Committee trimmed that request by $1 billion. Rumsfeld today expressed his disapproval.

Secretary RUMSFELD: In my view, that is clearly an enormously important thing for our country to be doing and it unquestionably is cost effective.

O'HARA: The House Appropriations Committee also cut most of the $75 million that the administration wants for a new pro-democracy program aimed at Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today argued for the money.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran, whose policies are directed at developing a Middle East that would be 180 degrees different than the Middle East we would like to see developed.

O'HARA: But members of Congress are acutely aware of the growing federal budget deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost $369 billion to date. And polls show the American public is losing confidence that the United States will achieve its goals in Iraq. One man interrupted today's hearing to condemn U.S. operations there.

Unidentified Man: How many of you have children in this illegal and immoral war? How many of you have children in this illegal and immoral war? The blood is on your hands, and you cannot wash it away.

O'HARA: The protester was removed from the room and the hearing was continued.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vicky O'Hara
Victoria (Vicky) O'Hara is a diplomatic correspondent for NPR. Her coverage of the State Department and foreign policy issues can be heard on the award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition as well as on NPR's newscasts.
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