– Knight Ridder Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq – In his first visit here since the United States ceded authority to an interim Iraqi government, Secretary of State Colin Powell pledged to accelerate U.S. funding for reconstruction and suggested it would help curb the continuing violence.

“We want to build the infrastructure. We want to create jobs,” Powell said at a news conference with Iraq’s interim deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh. “We want to show the Iraqi people that this money is being used for their benefit and do it as quickly as we can.”

In a visit that was not announced in advance for security reasons, Powell also said he had pledged during meetings with Saleh and other Iraqi leaders Friday to push for faster release of the funds. Some members of Congress have been criticizing the administration’s inability to quickly rebuild Iraq, despite the $18 billion for reconstruction that was authorized by lawmakers in special legislation passed last year.

Less than $500 million of the Iraqi reconstruction cash has been spent so far. Officials have complained about red tape and the difficult security situation in Iraq for contractors and other reconstruction workers.

“Reconstruction and security are two sides of the same coin,” Powell said Friday. He said that when Iraqis “see things happening in society,” including getting access to running water and reliable electricity, “that contributes to a sense of safety and improves the security environment.”

Powell did not offer any details about how much U.S. money would be placed on the fast track, which projects it would be spent on or how quickly he could get the cash flowing.

In both his news conference and a separate appearance with interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer, Powell praised Iraq’s leaders for continuing their efforts in the face of assassinations and death threats.

“It’s important to note that the leaders of Iraq are very courageous,” Powell said at the news conference. “They put themselves at risk every day.”

Security was intense for Powell’s visit Friday, his first since the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran the occupation government after the ouster of Saddam Hussein last year. It was also Powell’s first visit since the State Department, long marginalized on Iraq policy, was given primary responsibility for U.S. efforts in Iraq with the opening of the U.S. Embassy and transfer of authority to Iraqis.

Every member of Powell’s entourage was required Friday to wear a flak jacket for the helicopter flight from the Baghdad airport, where Powell arrived on a military transport plane, to the city’s fortified Green Zone. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte even wore one as he greeted Powell on the tarmac. No such precautions were taken when Powell last visited in March.

Powell spent about 10 1/2 hours inside the Green Zone on Friday, the site of government offices, before returning to Kuwait for the night. In his three trips to Iraq since the fall of Saddam, Powell has never ventured into Baghdad beyond the Green Zone. Last September, however, he did make a special trip to Halabja in northern Iraq, the site of a gas attack against the Kurds two decades ago.

During his news conference, Powell also got an earful from one Iraqi journalist who said the insurgents were not terrorists but everyday people. “The Islamic religion imposes on the people to fight to kick out the occupiers,” the journalist said, according to a simultaneous translation.

Powell said there was no excuse for the kind of violence rocking the nation, citing the large number of Iraqis killed. “Those who are setting off these bombs, those who are conducting these kidnappings are doing them for the purpose of returning to the past, returning to the days of a Saddam Hussein-like regime,” he said.


Later, at the new U.S. Embassy, Powell met with 11 Iraqi high school students who are headed to the United States next week for a one-year study program sponsored by the State Department. They were effusive about Powell and nearly all things American – except for media coverage of the struggles in their country.

The students complained that excessive coverage of the violence has left the world believing all Iraqis are terrorists.

Powell told the students to combat that image themselves when they arrive in the United States. “Proudly let everyone know you’re Iraqi,” he said, adding that they should tell Americans “about the Iraq that you don’t necessarily see on television.”

Powell is on a weeklong swing through the Middle East and Central Europe. He is scheduled to head to Sarajevo on Saturday and then to Poland, where he will represent President Bush on Sunday at ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Rising against the Nazis.

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

AP-NY-07-30-04 1838EDT

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