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Saturday, June 26

Lugar optimistic despite Iraq setbacks

By Maureen Groppe | GNS

WASHINGTON - Only days ahead of a transition of power in Iraq, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, one of the nation's leading foreign relations experts, expects some things won't be quick to change: Violence will continue, U.S. troops will stay, and Americans will keep paying military and reconstruction costs.

Nevertheless, Lugar told Gannett News Service on Thursday that he is optimistic that Iraq is on track toward a ``rough-and-ready democracy'' that will help stabilize the region.

``The overall result is going to be one that probably will be good for the people of Iraq and, in terms of our safety, ultimately a better situation for us,'' Lugar said.

Despite the setbacks, including the coordinated attacks killing more than 100 people on the day he was interviewed, the 72-year-old chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not wavered from his initial support for the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq after Saddam Hussein did not comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions on weapons inspections.

Before the war, however, Lugar urged officials to plan as much for the aftermath as they were for the invasion.

``Nobody was rebutting that, but the fact is they didn't care,'' Lugar said. ``They were hide-bound to just plow on. There was a degree of arrogance and so forth there, to say the least.''

At his hearings over the past year, the administration's witnesses sometimes declined to give as many specifics as Lugar's committee requested or declined to appear at all. Lugar's suggestion about reconsidering the turnover date was immediately dismissed.

More recently, however, the administration has been regularly consulting Lugar and others in Congress after complaints that lawmakers and the public were being left in the dark.

Last week, for example, Lugar, presided over a classified briefing Secretary of State Colin Powell gave to lawmakers and was among the congressional leaders who ate breakfast with President Bush on Thursday to talk about the transition.

At that meeting, Lugar said he made two recommendations.

First, that the administration use the $18.4 billion Congress approved for reconstruction of which only about $1 billion has been disbursed. Lugar said the United States should not focus on big projects like bridges and roads, but smaller works that will also serve as employment programs for the Iraqis.

``In terms of practical politics, this is likely to give these (new Iraqi) leaders more credibility and it's likely to give us more credibility,'' he said. ``After all, the American people have been generous in appropriating this money but have not seen the benefit of it because it hasn't been spent.''

Second, Lugar recommended that while the United States, by necessity, continues to focus on internal security issues in Iraq, that it not overlook outside threats.

``A Democratic Iraq is a threat really to the regimes in that neighborhood that are not very democratic,'' he said.

Asked what the American people can expect over the next six months, Lugar said it will be a ``testing period.''

``We're still going to be spending about the same amount of money; we're going to have about the same number of troops,'' Lugar said. ``I think the violence is going to still be considerable throughout that six-month period.''

While some argue that the Iraq war has drawn many terrorists out of the woodwork, Lugar said the other side of that is that many have been killed.And Lugar is optimistic about Iraq's transition to self-rule because of the country's leaders.

``We had no reason to anticipate that these people were going to be this articulate and this vigorous,'' Lugar said. ``They were not our first choices, apparently not the first choices of (U.N. ambassador) Mr. Brahimi, either. They really were Iraqis' choices. That turns out to have been a good thing because most Iraqis recognize that.''