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Cheney denies role in Iraq deal

WASHINGTON -- In a strong defense of Bush administration policies, Vice President Dick Cheney said yesterday that he did not help his former oil services company get a multibillion US government contract in Iraq and hinted that the $87 billion the administration has asked Congress to provide to rebuild the country might not be the last such request.

"It's all we think we'll need for the foreseeable future, for this year," Cheney said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The request is far higher than members of Congress were anticipating, and they have vowed to get more details from the administration about how the money would be spent. Polls show a majority of Americans are opposed to the $87 billion request. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking on the CBS show "Face the Nation," said consultations with lawmakers are ongoing to determine how long the money would last.

Also unknown is the length of time the United States will remain in Iraq.

"I don't think anybody can say with absolute certainty at this point," Cheney said yesterday.

Increasing cost estimates, the steady death toll in Iraq, and the open-ended nature of the occupation have left the administration vulnerable to strong criticism.

While expressing regret about the casualties, Cheney said, "The price that we've had to pay is not out of line, and certainly wouldn't lead me to suggest or think that the strategy is flawed or needs to be changed."

Democrats have also raised questions about the role Cheney's former firm, Halliburton, is playing in rebuilding Iraq. The company, headed by Cheney in the years before he became vice president, has gotten contracts worth nearly $2 billion.

Cheney bristled at the suggestion that his past leadership of Halliburton played a role in the company being awarded the no-bid contracts.

"Since I left Halliburton to become George Bush's vice president, I've severed all my ties with the company," he said. "And as vice president, I have absolutely no influence of, involvement of, knowledge of in any way, shape, or form of contracts let by the US Corps of Engineers or anybody else in the federal government."

Asked why Halliburton did not have to compete with other firms for the contracts, Cheney said: "I have no idea. Go ask the corps of engineers."

Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, has been among the most vocal critics of the Halliburton contracts and has vowed to continue asking questions about them. And Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who is running for president, wrote a letter to President Bush on Friday complaining about the contracts, saying, "It is imperative that you and your administration avoid any appearance of favoritism in how future contracts are awarded -- or we will risk losing the support and confidence of the American people."

Cheney said he had nothing to do with awarding contracts even when he served as secretary of defense during the first Bush administration. "That's done at a far lower level," he said.

Cheney got more than $30 million when he sold his holdings in Halliburton after becoming vice president. "I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had, now, for over three years," he said.

Cheney called suggestions of impropriety on his part "political cheap shots."

"Nobody has produced one single shred of evidence that there's anything wrong or inappropriate here," he said.

Administration officials have said that criticism on Iraq has obscured the progress being made.

"We've got a 25-man Governing Council in place, made up of Iraqis," Cheney said. "We've got all the schools open. We've got all the hospitals up and functioning. We're making major progress in restoring the electricity to prewar levels. We're rebuilding the oil system and infrastructure in the country." Still, members of Congress have used the president's $87 billion request as an opportunity to grill administration officials about operations in Iraq. Republicans have been among the most critical, saying Bush's plans to "win the peace" are ill-formed. Others in Congress are uncomfortable with the idea of adding $87 billion to a budget deficit that is already swelling toward $500 billion this year.

The Bush administration has not suggested any spending cuts to offset the budgetary impact of its request, but Senators John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph R. Biden of Delaware have announced that they plan to offer legislation to cancel a portion of the tax cuts the president signed, to pay for the Iraq request.

Bush has said that canceling the tax cuts would amount to a tax increase, which he opposes as harmful to the economy.

Biden, speaking on CNN's "Late Edition," said that argument is "absolute malarkey."

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