US to Halve Iraqi Embassy Staff

The US State Department is planning to cut its diplomatic presence in Iraq by as much as half, the New York Times reports.

Michael W. McClellan, spokesman for the embassy, said :

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.

He added that the number of diplomats, currently about 2,000, is also “subject to adjustment as appropriate.”

The embassy is hiring Iraqi staff and sourcing more goods and services to the local economy.

Staff numbers at the $750 million embassy, the largest of its kind in the world, have reached nearly 16,000 people, mostly contractors, but many of them are confined to the embassy due to security concerns. The annual cost of the operation is around $6 billion.

Turkey, by contrast, which is Iraq’s largest trading partner, employs roughly 55 people at its embassy, and the number of actual diplomats is in the single digits.

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.

Increased bureaucracy in relation to importation of food for embassy staff has caused frustration, with stocks sometimes running low.

According the New York Times, the 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.

Plans for a 700-person consulate in the northern city of Mosul have been scrapped for budgetary reasons.

Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, met with Ambassador James F. Jeffrey (pictured) 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 is expected to leave the task of slimming down the embassy to his successor, as he is expected to step down in the coming weeks.

One State Department program that is likely to be scrutinized as officials consider reducing the size of the embassy 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 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.

The Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr recently stated, “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.”

(Source New York Times)

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