By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration needs to make a compelling case for investing billions more taxpayer dollars in Iraq as the nearly 8-year-old conflict recedes from the public's mind and the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops leave by year's end, top Senate Republicans and Democrats warned military and diplomatic officials on Thursday.
Amid fresh Republican promises to slash spending, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee cautioned U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. military in Iraq, of the intense pressure to cut dollars for Iraq.
Under the November 2008 security agreement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, all U.S. military forces will withdraw from Iraq at the end of December and the operation will shift to a civilian-led effort by the State Department. Persuading budget-conscious lawmakers to back foreign aid for Iraq, rather than military money, makes the task harder, said several committee members.
"Failure is not an option in Iraq and we must be prepared to bear the cost to ensure success, including the costs of our civilian operations and development programs, which will be substantial however this transition plays out," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the committee. "Congress cannot short-change this mission now."
Since the March 2003 invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime, more than 4,300 Americans have died and the U.S. has spent some $750 billion on the war. Republicans now in charge in the House and tea party-backed newcomers are clamoring for deep spending cuts and have signaled that military dollars and foreign aid should be part of the calculation.
In a pre-emptive move, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proposed a $78 billion cut in future spending. And even before he makes his case for the Defense Department budget later this month, Gates met at the Pentagon early Thursday with several of the newest members of the Senate - Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republicans John Hoeven of North Dakota and Jerry Moran of Kansas.
Manchin said he is trying to get a sense of whether the U.S. investment matches the demands faced overseas.
"All the resources that we put into this, the restructuring that we're doing, trying to build an economy for them and we get no return on that," he said in an interview. "That's a hard thing for me and West Virginia to understand."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said that as the Iraq mission shifts from the military to the State Department it will be difficult to persuade lawmakers to fund the operation.
Jeffrey estimated the cost would be around $5 billion for the effort in the next budget, down from around $75 billion the U.S. spent this year on the military effort. Still, it would amount to the single largest program in the State Department budget and would compete with demands from Afghanistan and other foreign aid.
"If we don't sustain this effort, then we have invested a lot of blood and lives and material in an effort that could be frustrated. That would be a tragedy," Reed said.
The volatility in the region also makes a concerted U.S. effort imperative, lawmakers said.
"We disregard Iraq at great peril," McCain said.
"Iraq will continue to need support in building its capabilities to meet internal and external threats for years to come after 2011," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee.
Austin said the United States is on track to withdraw its military forces by year's end. That would leave a diplomatic mission of about 17,000 people at 15 sites throughout the country, including three air hubs and three police training centers as well as consulates, embassy offices and Office of Security Cooperation sites.
Several Republicans, including McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, expressed concern about leaving the civilian operation without U.S. military protection. Jeffrey and Austin indicated that the Iraqis have made progress in ensuring their own internal security but external defenses are lacking.
"Would it be wise, from an Iraqi-U.S. point of view, that that vacuum not be completely - that we not create a complete vacuum?" Graham pressed the officials.
Jeffrey and Austin were reluctant to speculate as the 2008 agreement has set the stage for U.S. withdrawal and the Iraqis have given no indication that they want Americans to remain.
"We are always happy to have U.S. military security," Jeffrey said.