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After troops, cash shortage stares at US

Washington, Sept. 26 (Reuters): Promises from other countries to help the US rebuild Iraq have fallen short of expectations — at only $2 billion — before a key donor conference in Madrid, a congressional source said today.

“We have seen that the administration officials are lowering projections about international contributions that they expect from the Madrid conference,” a senior congressional aide said.

The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the current projections are for donations of around $2 billion. That is seen as disappointing in light of a request for around $20 billion that the administration has submitted to Congress for the US contribution toward repairing Iraq’s decrepit infrastructure.

US officials stressed there is still plenty of time left before the October 23-24 donors conference.

“We honestly have not yet started to do a ledger with countries,” said a US official, who asked not to be identified. “I think there is a realisation that it is not going to be anywhere near the $20 billion that we are putting in.”

Within the US Congress, the $20 billion in proposed aid for Iraq’s reconstruction is the most controversial portion of the $87 billion package the Bush administration has submitted to lawmakers for Iraq. The US is seeking a UN resolution that it hopes may make it easier for other countries to commit both money and soldiers to the post-war effort in Iraq.

In a news briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan declined to comment on the $2 billion estimate for the donors conference. “I think it’s premature to speculate since the conference hasn’t taken place,” McClellan said. “We’re continuing to talk to countries.”

Some Democratic lawmakers have expressed outrage at proposals to spend money on schools and hospitals in Iraq at a time when they believe a lot of education and health-care needs are being ignored within the US. Government figures released today showed nearly 1.7 million Americans slid into poverty in 2002.

Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, met President George W. Bush at the White House today to discuss Iraq’s needs. Bremer spent much of the week on Capitol Hill trying to persuade lawmakers of the urgency of spending money to stabilise Iraq and put it on a path to democracy.

A Canadian official told Reuters in an interview today that her country would not be pledging new aid for Iraq at the Madrid conference.

International cooperation minister Susan Whelan said Ottawa would take no decision about extra money until it had worked out how exactly to spend the C$200 million ($148 million) in humanitarian aid for Iraq it unveiled in May.

Double blow

The UN evacuated staff from Baghdad as Iraqis paid last respects today to a leading politician whose murder plunged US efforts to rebuild the country into further turmoil.

The assassination of Akila al-Hashemi, who died yesterday five days after gunmen opened fire on her car, and the UN pullout, following two suicide bomb attacks, were fresh setbacks to a US bid to get more international help to police and rebuild Iraq.

In an effort to forge an international consensus, US secretary of state Colin Powell advocated a deadline of six months for Iraqi leaders working under the American occupation to produce a new constitution — paving the way for elections.

“We would like to put a deadline on them,” he said in an interview in The New York Times published today. “They’ve got six months. It’ll be a difficult deadline to meet but we’ve got to get them going.” Washington has been resisting pressure from countries such as France and Germany for an early handover of power to Iraqis, saying this would just worsens the chaos plaguing the country.

In the town of Baquba, a hotbed of guerrilla activity northeast of Baghdad, a mortar attack on a market killed eight Iraqis last evening, the US military said. A spokesman said no US troops were wounded. More than 15 people were injured and locals said the death toll would have been higher if the attack happened earlier in the day when the market was busier.

“We don’t know who was behind this crime — maybe people who want to destabilise Iraq or people who were trying to target the Americans,” Khaled Youssef said. “But in the end, it was Iraqis who were killed.”

In the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, a rocketpropelled grenade attack on a US army vehicle killed one soldier and wounded two yesterday, the military said. The attack brought to 80 the number of US soldiers killed by guerrillas since President George W. Bush declared major combat over on May 1.

Bush is trying to win agreement for a greater UN role in Iraq in return for more international help in terms of troops and cash. But securing funding has been difficult — the European Commission said it would offer 200 million euros ($230 million) to help rebuild Iraq up to the end of next year, a far cry from the $20 billion Washington has pledged to spend.

And efforts in New York to agree a wider UN mandate are in stark contrast to events on the ground in Baghdad, where many international staff are leaving.

The United Nations ordered a further pullout of staff from Iraq yesterday. A UN spokeswoman in Baghdad said around a third of the 42 international staff remaining in the capital would leave over the next few days.

A suicide car bomber blew himself up near the UN compound on Monday, also killing a security guard, a month after a truck bomb attack on the building killed 22 people including mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello.

“There have been two attacks and we cannot go on like this,” Veronique Taveau said. “But the UN is not pulling out of Iraq. We are committed to the work we are doing here.”

She said the evacuation would not affect the daytoday running of UN humanitarian programmes.

UN sources said secretarygeneral Kofi Annan’s security aides had advocated a total withdrawal but Powell expressed concern about the impact such a move would have on Iraq.

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