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Iraq Transition

Senate votes to keep Iraq watchdog in business

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate voted Tuesday to keep in business for at least another two years the independent agency monitoring the billions of tax dollars being spent on Iraq reconstruction.

The move came after supporters of the watchdog agency complained a deadline set by House members was inadequate and arbitrary.

Investigations by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction have resulted in two U.S. officials and a Pentagon contractor pleading guilty to corruption charges.

A provision in the latest Pentagon spending bill pulls the plug on the office in September, requiring Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general, to wrap up work by that time.

The measure to extend that deadline was backed heavily by Democrats and co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Collins called it "simply inconceivable" that the office would close up shop before its work is complete.

"It's important that we correct the problem, go forward, and extend the life of the office," she said.

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and its likely chairman in the next Congress, is backing a similar measure in the House.

The measure the Senate passed on a voice vote Tuesday would give Bowen until 10 months after 80 percent of the $32 billion in Iraq reconstruction funds Congress has committed has been spent.

That is likely to keep the special inspector general's office open until mid-2009, said Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, one of the measure's major sponsors.

"With all the disagreements and all the problems that have occurred because of this war, this is something that has actually gone right," Feingold said. "It would be a real serious mistake to undo it prematurely."

Recent reports by the inspector general's office have found that major contractors billed U.S. taxpayers more than twice as much for administrative costs as they spent on reconstruction work.

In October it reported that thousands of rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers provided to Iraq's army and police force are unaccounted for.

The office also has said that security fears in Iraq have hamstrung many projects.

White House chief of staff Josh Bolten said Sunday that President Bush was open to keeping Bowen in business past 2007.

American contractor Philip Bloom pleaded guilty in April to bribing reconstruction officials.

Two of those former officials -- Robert Stein, the occupation government's comptroller in south-central Iraq, and Bruce Hopfengardner, an Army reserve officer -- have pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges in related cases.

The provision closing Bowen's office was introduced in a conference committee as House and Senate members tried to reach a compromise on the nearly $380 billion Pentagon funding bill for 2007.

Though a Democratic source said key party members agreed to the bill that would close the office at the end of the fiscal year, others criticized it in the days leading up to last week's midterm elections.

Bowen has said Iraq spending oversight would return to the inspectors general in the Pentagon, State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development once his office closes.


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