February 7, 2012
By TIM ARANGO
BAGHDAD — Less than two months after American troops left, the State Department is preparing to slash by as much as half the enormous diplomatic presence it had planned for Iraq, a sharp sign of declining American influence in the country.
Officials in Baghdad and Washington said that Ambassador James F. Jeffrey and other senior State Department officials were reconsidering the size and scope of the embassy, where the staff has swelled to nearly 16,000 people, mostly contractors.
The expansive diplomatic operation and the $750 million embassy building, the largest of its kind in the world, were billed as necessary to nurture a postwar Iraq on its shaky path to democracy and establish normal relations between two countries linked by blood and mutual suspicion. But the Americans have been frustrated by what they see as Iraqi obstructionism and are now largely confined to the embassy because of security concerns, unable to interact enough with ordinary Iraqis to justify the $6 billion annual price tag.
The swift realization among some top officials that the diplomatic buildup may have been ill advised represents a remarkable pivot for the State Department, in that officials spent more than a year planning the expansion and that many of the thousands of additional personnel have only recently arrived. Michael W. McClellan, the embassy spokesman, said in a statement, “Over the last year and continuing this year the Department of State and the Embassy in Baghdad have been considering ways to appropriately reduce the size of the U.S. mission in Iraq, primarily by decreasing the number of contractors needed to support the embassy’s operations.”
Mr. McClellan said the number of diplomats — currently about 2,000 — was also “subject to adjustment as appropriate.”
To make the cuts, he said the embassy was “hiring Iraqi staff and sourcing more goods and services to the local economy.”
After the American troops departed in December, life became more difficult for the thousands of diplomats and contractors left behind. Convoys of food that had been escorted by the United States military from Kuwait were delayed at border crossings as Iraqis demanded documentation that the Americans were unaccustomed to providing.
Within days, the salad bar at the embassy dining hall ran low. Sometimes there was no sugar or Splenda for coffee. On chicken-wing night, wings were rationed at six per person. Over the holidays, housing units were stocked with Meals Ready to Eat, the prepared food for soldiers in the field.
At every turn, the Americans say, the Iraqi government has interfered with the activities of the diplomatic mission, one they grant that the Iraqis never asked for or agreed upon. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s office — and sometimes even the prime minister himself — now must approve visas for all Americans, resulting in lengthy delays. American diplomats have had trouble setting up meetings with Iraqi officials.
For their part, the Iraqis say they are simply enforcing their laws and protecting their sovereignty in the absence of a working agreement with the Americans on the embassy.
“The main issue between Iraqis and the U.S. Embassy is that we have not seen, and do not know anything about, an agreement between the Iraqi government and the U.S.,” said Nahida al-Dayni, a lawmaker and member of Iraqiya, a largely Sunni bloc in Parliament.
Expressing a common sentiment among Iraqis, she added: “The U.S. had something on their mind when they made it so big. Perhaps they want to run the Middle East from Iraq, and their embassy will be a base for them here."
Those suspicions have been reinforced by two murky episodes, one involving four armed Americans on the streets of Baghdad that Iraqi officials believe were Central Intelligence Agency operatives and another when an American helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing because of an unspecified mechanical failure on the outskirts of the capital on the banks of the Tigris River.
“The aircraft that broke down raised many questions about the role of Americans here,” said Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading Shiite political party and social organization. “So what is the relationship? We’re still waiting for more information.”
The current configuration of the embassy, a 104-acre campus with adobe-colored buildings, is actually smaller than the original plans that were drawn up at a time when officials believed that a residual American military presence would remain in Iraq beyond 2011. For instance, officials once planned for a 700-person consulate in the northern city of Mosul, but it was scrapped for budgetary reasons.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, met with Mr. Jeffrey last week to discuss, among other things, the size of the American presence here. “The problem is with the contractors, with the security arrangements,” Mr. Zebari said. Mr. Jeffrey will leave the task of whittling down the embassy to his successor, as officials said he is expected to step down in the coming weeks.
“We always knew that what they were planning to do didn’t make sense,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It’s increasingly becoming clear that they are horribly overstaffed given what they are able to accomplish.”
Mr. Pollack described as unrealistic the State Department’s belief that it could handle many of the tasks previously performed by the military, such as monitoring security in northern areas disputed by Arabs and Kurds, where checkpoints are jointly manned by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and visiting projects overseen by the United States Agency of International Development.
Americans are also still being shot at regularly in Iraq. At the Kirkuk airport, an Office of Security Cooperation, which handles weapons sales to the Iraqis and where a number of diplomats work, is frequently attacked by rockets fired by, officials believe, members of Men of the Army of Al Naqshbandi Order, a Sunni insurgent group.
American officials believed that Iraqi officials would be far more cooperative than they have been in smoothing the transition from a military operation to a diplomatic mission led by American civilians. The expansion has exacted a toll on Iraqi ministries, which are keen to exert their sovereignty after nearly nine years of war and occupation, and aggravated long-running tensions between the two countries.
The size of the embassy staff is even more remarkable when compared with those of other countries. Turkey, for instance, which is Iraq’s largest trading partner and wields more economic influence here than the United States, employs roughly 55 people at its embassy, and the number of actual diplomats is in the single digits.
“It’s really been an overload for us, for the Foreign Ministry,” Mr. Zebari said of the American mission.
The problems with the supply convoys, as well as a wide crackdown on security contractors that included detentions and the confiscation of documents, computers and weapons, prompted the embassy to post a notice on its Web site warning Americans working here that “the government of Iraq is strictly enforcing immigration and customs procedures, to include visas and stamps for entry and exit, vehicle registration, and authorizations for weapons, convoys, logistics and other matters.”
The considerations to reduce the number of embassy personnel, American officials here said, reflect a belief that a quieter and humbler diplomatic presence could actually result in greater leverage over Iraqi affairs, particularly in mediating a political crisis that flared just as the troops were leaving. Having fewer burly, bearded and tattooed security men — who are currently the face of America to many Iraqis and evoke memories of horrible abuses like the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad square in 2007 by private contractors — could help build trust with Iraqis, these officials believe.
“Iraqis, as individuals, have had bad experiences with these security firms,” said Latif Rashid, a senior adviser to President Jalal Talabani.
One State Department program that is likely to be scrutinized is an ambitious program to train the Iraqi police, which is costing about $500 million this year — far less than the nearly $1 billion that the embassy originally intended to spend. The program has generated considerable skepticism within the State Department — one of the officials interviewed predicted that the program could be scrapped later this year — because of the high cost of support staff, the inability of police advisers to leave their bases because of the volatile security situation and a lack of support by the Iraqi government.
In an interview late last year with the American Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a senior official at the Interior Ministry said the United States should use the money it planned to spend on the police program “for something that can benefit the people of the United States.” The official, Adnan al-Asadi, predicted the Iraqis would receive “very little benefit” from the program.
Reducing the size of the embassy might have the added benefit of quieting the anti-Americanism of those who violently opposed the military occupation.
Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has steadfastly railed against American influence here and whose militia fought the American military, has recently told his followers that the United States has failed to “disarm.”
Mr. Sadr recently posted a statement on his Web site that read, “I ask the competent authorities in Iraq to open an embassy in Washington, equivalent to the size of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, in order to maintain the prestige of Iraq.”