WASHINGTON (UPI) — Gains are being made in Iraq that will accustom the Iraqi people to the American presence, increase their cooperation in the search for Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and help to end the insurgent threat to U.S. troops, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told a Senate committee Tuesday.

However, the influential neoconservative’s comments shield deeper concerns — from both within and outside the Bush administration — about the way the Iraq reconstruction is going.

“That history of atrocities (by the Baathist regime) and the punishment of those responsible are directly linked to our success in helping the Iraqi people build a free, secure and democratic future,” Wolfowitz told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And, I may add, to the finding of weapons of mass destruction.”

Much of his testimony centered on Saddam’s “unspeakable brutality,” a theme Bush administration officials have focused on in recent weeks when talking about the problems in post-war Iraq. Only continued U.S. commitment, Wolfowitz said, will end pervasive Iraqi fears of the Baathist regime and breed the trust needed for Iraqis with information important to the U.S. mission to move forward.

He added that tips from Iraqis were on the rise before the killing of Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay last week and have increased since. But Wolfowitz’s comments did little to stem concerns raised by committee members on both sides of the aisle about the problems in Iraq.

In a sign of the growing tension between Congress and the Bush administration — especially with Hill Democrats — on the issue of post-war Iraq, ranking committee member Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Wolfowitz got into a heated argument over the administration’s refusal to provide Congress with a 2004 funding requests for the Iraq occupation.

In response to Biden’s queries about the potential costs of the mission over the next year, Wolfowitz and Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten said that the actual costs are not known. Wolfowitz added that the administration simply wants to make sure its figures are accurate before making a request.

But with the costs of the occupation running around $4 billion a month and little hope for a significant lessening of U.S. troops’ presence in Iraq, Biden and other committee Democrats were critical of this assessment.

“Give me a break, will ya,” said Biden. “When are you guys going to start being honest with us?”

One staffer with the Senate Democratic leadership told United Press International tempers are increasingly short in Congress due to the White House’s not sharing information on Iraq. GOP staff also confirmed that some Republican members are complaining about Bush administration attempts to thwart congressional oversight of Iraq in the face of rising criticism of White House actions both before the war and during the reconstruction phase of the operation.

The lack of information is also largely a function of the shaky state of the current situation in Iraq, which could get better or easily get worse.

Frederick Barton, an expert in post-war reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and member of a team recently dispatched at the behest of the Pentagon to evaluate the situation in Iraq, said the future of the country is still very much for grabs.

“I think it is way too early to claim success or to decry it as a failure,” said Barton. “The fact that it could go either direction is disconcerting.”

There are also other political signals counterbalancing the administration’s somewhat rosy pictures, one that show White House officials don’t believe things are going all that swimmingly in Iraq.

For one, the Pentagon recently announced that it would no longer allow reporters to embed with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq. The move is clearly a response to the increasing bad press out of Iraq and the decreasing likelihood for the type of much more positive media reports of military action that accompanied the invasion of the country.

Recent reports that President Bush is contemplating asking James Baker, who served as secretary of state in Bush’s father’s administration, to go to Baghdad in some position of oversight of the reconstruction process also points to a conflicted stated of mind at the White House. Whether Baker has been asked remains unclear, as does what his position would be.

Nevertheless, the fact that the administration is contemplating another change in the post-war hierarchy overseeing Iraq demonstrates its desperation to fix the problems in the country.

Baker is a close Bush family friend who has long been a go-to guy for Bush clan to fix political problems. He is largely credited with helping then-candidate Bush overcome his political problems during the Florida recount process that led to victory in the 2000 election.

Baker was on record before the war as opposing unilateralist action in Iraq and his involvement could signal an even stronger administration effort to reach out to allies for support given that he was responsible for developing the U.S. coalition during the 1991 Gulf War.

Biden, other congressional Democrats and critics of the administration’s approach so far have pushed for a greater involvement of the United Nations and U.S. allies in the post-war process. However, the apparent United States’ unwillingness to give any power to its allies has limited interest.

At the hearing, Wolfowitz pointed to the fact that Poland and other countries have pledged soldiers for the reconstruction effort as sign of progress on this front. However, committee Democrats were dismissive of the small numbers of soldiers pledged and the fact that much of the cost for their deployment would be supported by U.S. taxpayers.

Criticism of the Bush White House’s handling of the post-war reconstruction has not been limited to Democrats. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., expressed doubts at Tuesday’s hearing about the circumspect “shifting justifications” coming from the administration for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He noted that in his previous testimony to the committee, Wolfowitz cited how a Saddam-free Iraq would help in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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