President Bush, under election-year pressure from Democrats and some fellow Republicans over Iraq, promised on Saturday to step up the pace of spending on reconstruction contracts in that country despite the violence.
Bush cited what he called “steady progress” in Iraq to counter warnings by his Democratic presidential rival, Sen. John Kerry, that the situation in reality was deteriorating.
Bush said more than $9 billion would be spent on contracts in the next “several months” to rebuild Iraqi schools, refurbish hospitals, repair bridges, upgrade the electrical grid and modernize the communication system, although congressional aides and some administration officials said spending would increase more slowly.
Bush said preparations were also under way to conduct “free national elections no later than January.” He said an Iraqi electoral commission had already hired personnel, and U.N. electoral advisers are on the ground.
Critics countered that many of the critical steps in conducting the elections, such as the procurement of vehicles, voting equipment and ballots, had not begun. They said the electoral commission had received only $7 million of the $232 million set aside in Iraqi funds and that the United Nations had only a few advisers in the country.
Bush came to his Crawford ranch to prepare for next week’s presidential debate, the first of three sessions that could be pivotal in the close race.
He will hold a practice session on Saturday night with New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, who will play the role of Kerry, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
In a potentially worrying sign for Bush, a new Time magazine poll found just 37 percent of registered voters believed he was being truthful in describing conditions in Iraq, while 55 percent thought conditions were worse than he made them out to be.
Bush acknowledged on Saturday there was “persistent violence in parts of Iraq” and that “serious problems remain in several cities.”
His overall message was upbeat. He said interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had “accomplished a great deal” and that “freedom is winning.”
Bush came under fire from Democrats and fellow Republicans when the White House acknowledged only $1.2 billion had been spent so far from the $18.4 billion reconstruction package Bush asked Congress to rush through last year.
Bush, who met with Allawi at the White House on Thursday, said they were in agreement that “the pace of reconstruction can and should be accelerated,” and cited the $9 billion figure.
In contrast, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told lawmakers on Friday he hoped to speed up the pace of spending to between $300 million and $400 million a month.
Last week, the State Department announced it would divert $3.5 billion from water, sewer and other infrastructure projects to try to improve security.
Bush on Saturday also touted efforts to train Iraqi security forces. He said nearly 100,000 “fully trained and equipped” Iraqi soldiers, police officers and other security personnel were already working and that the Iraqi government was on track to build a force of over 200,000 security personnel by the end of 2005.
Documents prepared by Defense Department officials and given to lawmakers showed fewer than 100,000 would be trained by the end of this year. They also showed that of the nearly 90,000 now in the police force, only 8,169 had the full eight-week academy training. It will be July 2006 before the administration’s new goal of 135,000 fully trained police is met.