Key congressional aides on Sunday cast doubt on claims ranging from the extent of reconstruction to preparations for January elections.

Bush used the visit last week by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to make the case that "steady progress" was being made.

He said Iraq's electoral commission was up and running and told Americans on Saturday that "United Nations electoral advisers are on the ground in Iraq".

He added that nearly 100,000 "fully trained and equipped" Iraqi soldiers, police officers and other security personnel were already at work, and promised more than $9 billion would be spent on reconstruction contracts in Iraq over the next several months.

But many of these assertions have met with scepticism from key congressional aides and experts, while Pentagon documents given to lawmakers paint a more complicated picture.

Reconstruction spending

Congressional experts doubt $9 billion could be spent on reconstruction projects within several months, as Bush has asserted.

Baghdad areas are strewn with
garbage and overflowing sewers

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he hoped to speed up the pace of spending to between $300 million and $400 million a month.

A top Republican aide briefed by the administration said "at best", the $9 billion cited by Bush would be disbursed by late 2005 or early 2006.

A top Democratic aide called the president's projections "laughable".

So far, only $1.2 billion of the $18.4 billion Bush asked the US Congress to rush through last year has been spent on Iraq's reconstruction.

Training record

Pentagon documents paint an equally poor record on training. Of the nearly 90,000 currently in the police force, only 8169 have had the full eight-week academy training.

Another 46,176 are listed as "untrained" and it will be July 2006 before the administration reaches its new goal of a 135,000-strong, fully-trained police force.

 "The framework for it [free and fair elections] hasn't even been set up" 

Madeleine Albright,
former secretary of state

Six army battalions have had "initial training" while 57 National Guard battalions, 896 soldiers in each, are still being recruited or "awaiting equipment".

Just eight National Guard battalions have reached "initial [operating] capability", and the Pentagon acknowledged their performance has been "uneven".

And none of the 18,000 border enforcement guards has received any centralised training to date, despite earlier claims they had, according to Democrats on the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

They estimated that 22,700 Iraqi personnel had received enough basic training to make them "minimally effective at their tasks", in contrast to the 100,000 figure cited by Bush.

Elections unprepared

The status of election planning in Iraq is also in question. Of the $232 million in Iraqi funds set aside for the Iraqi electoral commission, it has received a mere $7 million, according to House Appropriations Committee staff.

While Bush said the commission had already hired personnel and begun setting election procedures, congressional aides have said preparations are almost non-existent.

Albright (L): Preparations for the
elections have been very lacking

With fighting expected to intensify in the run-up to the elections, the United Nations has been reluctant to send staff back into the battle zone. It only has up to 35 people now in Baghdad, no more than eight working on the elections.

Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state during president Bill Clinton's administration, said on Sunday: "The framework for it [free and fair elections] hasn't even been set up.

"The voter registration lists aren't set. There have to be hundreds of polling places, hundreds of trained monitors and poll watchers. None of that has happened."