More money down the drain: War cost bleeds states, cities

As U.S. casualties in Iraq topped 1,600, the U.S. Congress approved another $82 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and related spending, with the bulk going to the Iraq occupation.

This additional “supplementary” funding brings total U.S. spending for the Iraq war to nearly $210 billion.

Two years after George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished,” the ever-ballooning cost of the Iraq war is hitting home for U.S. states and cities.

Recent studies by the National Priorities Project show the $210 billion war is sucking $3.2 billion in tax dollars from Tennessee, where the governor recently cut over 320,000 people from the state’s low-income health program, TennCare. John Zirker Sr., a co-founder of the Homeless Power Project in Nashville, said those cuts didn’t have to happen. The “billions and billions going to Iraq are taking away from our communities,” he told the World.

Zirker cited funding needs of a local program offering training for construction and other skilled jobs that would provide a meaningful path out of homelessness in Nashville. “Thirty million dollars would have got it going,” he said angrily. “Our government is doing things ass-backwards. I’m really appalled.”

The war costs are taking $11.1 billion in tax dollars from Illinois, with $2.1 billion from Chicago, which is facing school closings and privatization moves. Sharon Voliva, chair of the statewide Better Funding for Better Schools coalition, told the World 80 percent of Illinois schools are in deficit. “If we had access to some of the money going to fight, we would not be in deficit spending,” she said.

“You can’t run a good army that isn’t educated,” said Voliva, a grandmother of five whose husband is a retired Army colonel. “Our public schools are in desperate condition.” Pointing to inadequate funding of No Child Left Behind requirements and of special education, she said, “The federal government is not doing what it’s supposed to do for the children of this state now.”

Meanwhile, a new audit shows $100 million earmarked for reconstruction of Iraq is missing, and embezzlement by U.S. officials is suspected. The U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, reported May 4 that occupation officials “cannot properly account for or support $96.6 million in cash and cash receipts.” In some cases, he said, “we found indications of fraud.” A criminal investigation has been initiated. That follows a January audit report that $9 billion in Iraq reconstruction money was unaccounted for. The funds involved are part of billions of dollars in Iraqi assets, known as the Development Fund for Iraq, entrusted to the U.S. occupation by the United Nations.

According to the Los Angeles Times, in the new audit one U.S. official said he was given $6.75 million last June 21 and told he had to spend it by June 28, the day the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority handed over authority to an interim Iraqi government. In another case cited, two U.S. officials left Iraq after finishing their duty there without accounting for $1.5 million. A manager entered a zero balance for one of the funds involved, apparently seeking “to remove outstanding balances by simply washing accounts,” the report said.

Last July, this newspaper reported charges by the British humanitarian group Christian Aid that the U.S. occupation had not “properly accounted for what it has done with some $20 billion of Iraq’s own money.” Iraq Revenue Watch charged that the CPA had “launched a last-minute spending spree using Iraq’s oil money … committing billions of dollars to hastily conceived projects” just before the authority was due to close up shop.

Other new reports add to previous findings that the U.S. occupation has been cavalier about U.S. taxpayer money as well.

Another audit released May 4 showed that, for contracts funded with $18.4 billion in U.S. tax money, auditors could not find about one-quarter of the 48 contracts it chose for review.

A Pentagon audit report written last fall found more than $100 million in questionable charges by Halliburton in just one of 10 sections of its $2.5 billion no-bid contract for Iraq. The report had been kept under wraps, but Democratic Reps. John Dingell (Mich.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.) made a summary public in March. In a letter to Bush, the lawmakers called for release of audits for the other nine sections of Halliburton’s contract. “[T]he administration has withheld these audits from Congress for months, and Halliburton has repaid nothing under this contract,” they wrote. “We would like to know when and how you plan to recover the overcharges from Halliburton and restore them to U.S. taxpayers and the Iraqi people.”

The new war appropriation increases the automatic death benefit for families of troops killed in combat from $12,420 to $100,000. It also includes $592 million to pay for the construction of a new U.S. embassy in Baghdad.