Iraq transition raises thorny and expensive questions

Walter Pincus
Reporter July 2, 2012

Why doesn’t the Iraqi government seem to like us?

Why won’t Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki give better treatment to the U.S. government officials whose military freed Iraq from Saddam Hussein and whose employees now are trying to make his country better?

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Why are we giving more than $1 billion next year, mostly to Iraq’s military, while its oil income has soared, supposedly putting the Baghdad regime in surplus?

These questions emerged Thursday during a congressional hearing on the transition from a military to a civilian-led U.S. mission in Iraq. The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security, homeland defense and foreign operations was the host panel.

“The government of Iraq’s commitment to the U.S. presence has remained unclear,” Michael J. Courts of the Government Accountability Office said in his prepared statement.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the subcommittee chairman, picked up that theme, listing complaints that Courts and other U.S. officials with oversight responsibilities in Iraq raised in their statements.

These included:

●Iraq security forces routinely have been detaining U.S.-hired private security contractors at checkpoints, and the Iraq government is restricting airspace for U.S. aircraft, jeopardizing potential escape routes.

●Iraq’s objections to the United States transporting people to meetings using the 60 MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) that the departing U.S. military turned over to the Baghdad embassy.

●Lack of cooperation from Iraqi law enforcement agencies with the U.S. Agency for International Development on prosecuting fraud cases.

●Difficulties in getting Iraqi entities to sustain projects that United States has poured billions of dollars into.

During the hearing, Chaffetz raised a different point. He said the GAO has reported that Iraq, thanks to oil exports, had accumulated a budget surplus of more than $50 billion. The U.S. Commerce Department reported that Iraq sold $17 billion worth of oil products to the United States in 2011, up 39 percent from 2010.

Chaffetz asked: “Why are we pouring a lot of money into Iraq when their . . . budget is certainly in better shape than ours?”

USAID plans to spend $263 million next year to support Iraq government building and anti-corruption programs. The bulk of fiscal 2013 money for Iraq, $911 million, is in a new Foreign Military Financing (FMF) fund run by the State Department to continue Pentagon programs that develop Iraqi army professionalism and logistics capabilities. State already has $850 million for FMF in fiscal 2012 money.

Thomas R. Nides, deputy secretary of state for management and resources, took time Friday to discuss some issues on the Chaffetz list. Nides, who has monitored State’s takeover in Iraq from the Pentagon, insisted the Iraqis “want us there in a positive way.”

As he went down the list, he cautioned that although “there are no material problems today . . . things could change in a minute.”

Detaining of new U.S. security guards was a function of the January switch from Defense to State, Nides said. Embassy officials decided not to use the MRAPs, he said, because they “clog the streets” and give the impression that the U.S. military is still there. Instead, the embassy continues to use three-car convoys using sport-utility vehicles with civilian security guards.

Requests to travel with security from the compound must be made 48 hours in advance because there are not enough cars and security to meet the needs of every agency. Michael Carroll, deputy inspector general for USAID, told the panel that earlier this year his agency was turned down on three of seven requests.

While security has worsened for Iraqis this year, Nides said that so far there have been no attacks on U.S. vehicles. Patrick Kennedy, the department’s undersecretary for management, testified that in the three months ending March 31, “up to 4,000” security missions took embassy officials outside the compound in Baghdad’s International Zone. While that was up from 3,000 the previous quarter, it also meant there were, on average, roughly 44 a day for an embassy that had some 1,600 employees.

Iraqi sustainment of some $51 billion in U.S.-financed reconstruction and development projects has been a continuing issue for Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. He told the House panel his audits “reveal that there was no consensus upon how to transfer these projects,” adding that his audits stimulated a sustainment requirement in new contracts, “but it was, for the most part, too little, too late.”

USAID’s Carroll said his recent audit of Iraq’s sustainment of U.S.-financed information technology “was pretty bleak.” But he said the need for “Iraqi buy-in” to projects is now part of the program. Iraqis now are required to match AID contributions to projects dollar for dollar.

Nides and State officials also dealt with questions raised in Thursday’s column about State’s plan to spend up to $115 million more to upgrade the 31 / 2-year-old, $700 million embassy compound. One reason was that State gave up other spaces in Baghdad, moving people to the compound.

At the same time, the embassy is requiring contractors to hire more local Iraqis, up to 50 percent of their employees. That not only reduces the number of third-party expatriates on the rolls, but it lessens the need to provide living quarters for the local Iraqi workers.

Overall, the embassy staff, at 16,000 in January, will be reduced by 25 percent by October 2013, according to Nides and Kennedy. Most cuts are to come in security contractors, though there will be minimal reduction in Foreign Service officers and civil servants. Nonetheless, it will still remain the “largest U.S. diplomatic presence in the world,” the GAO said.

Perhaps that fact led Chaffetz to ask, “What needs to be done to create a level of security and confidence where our personnel can get out there?”

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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