By Bradley Graham and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 3, 2006
The Bush administration has decided to establish more reconstruction teams in Iraq's provinces to coordinate U.S. aid and fortify local governments, but the State Department has been unable so far to gain a Pentagon commitment to provide U.S. troops to protect the groups, U.S. officials said.
State Department officials had hoped the U.S. military would take responsibility for ensuring the safety of the dozens of diplomats, aid workers and other specialists intended to staff the new outposts, which, when announced last fall, were billed as an important initiative for rebuilding the country. But the Pentagon remains reluctant to take on new missions while it is trying to reduce the visibility of U.S. forces in Iraq and turn over more areas to the Iraqis, the officials said.
The uncertainty over who will protect the new teams underscores how deeply security considerations affect every aspect of U.S. policy in Iraq, particularly the troubled effort to spark a broad-based reconstruction.
The United States has also begun discussions with Britain, Italy and other nations that have forces in Iraq about taking charge of some of the groups, known as provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs. The governments of those countries have been told that if they assume leadership of a reconstruction team, they must be prepared to handle airlift and other logistical needs rather than rely on U.S. forces, several defense officials said.
Additionally, U.S. authorities are looking at the possibility of setting up Iraqi-led teams in some provinces and linking them to U.S.- or coalition-led PRTs in neighboring provinces, several officials said.
The decision to move ahead with the PRT program was made after a recent high-level administration review of pilot groups inaugurated in November in Mosul, Kirkuk and Hilla. Although the review concluded that the effort is worth expanding, it left a number of details on staffing and resources to be worked out in the coming weeks, officials said.
The results of the review, which involved President Bush's top national security advisers, were not publicly announced, and interviews over the past week with Pentagon, State Department and other officials yielded somewhat differing impressions of where things stand on the critical question of protecting the teams.
"The decision has been to go ahead and seek resources to provide private security contractors for these teams," said an administration official whose interview rules prohibit identification by name or agency. "Various options were considered, and this is the one considered to be the most applicable, given the circumstances and resources."
Similarly, Pentagon officials referred questions about PRT security to the State Department. They said State has taken the lead on this issue and has agreed to seek additional funds to cover the cost of contracting private security guards. The administration's supplemental budget submission to Congress last month included a $400 million request for this purpose.
But a senior State Department official said the issue has not been resolved, and he held out the possibility that the Pentagon might eventually provide some protection. He described the budget request as a "placeholder" that allows the administration to keep its options open.
"Our position remains that we think that the best way to secure these people in a very dangerous environment is with the U.S. military," said the official, who like others would speak about internal administration deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. "If we hadn't put in the money, then we'd be accused of trying to jam the senior leadership of the country by giving them no options. We're trying to be fair about it."
The idea for the provincial outposts was borrowed from Afghanistan, where PRTs have helped spur regional development and extend the influence of the central government of President Hamid Karzai. In Iraq, the teams are being designed to focus more on helping empower provincial governments that had little authority under Saddam Hussein.
State Department officials tend to see the teams as an integral part of the larger U.S. counterinsurgency campaign -- and therefore worthy of a priority claim on U.S. forces. But Pentagon officials say guarding the PRTs would require U.S. troops to give up something else.
"You can't always ask the military to come in and do something that may involve abandoning another mission or task," a defense official said. "You can't rob Peter to pay Paul."
Private guards have been used extensively in Iraq to protect State Department personnel at regional offices. But U.S. troops have also provided convoy security for State employees on a number of occasions, and Pentagon officials have not closed the door to using U.S. troops for some PRT missions.
"It'll be case by case," another Pentagon official said. "If we have some bases nearby, it might be logical" for U.S. troops to provide some security.
Original plans called for the creation of 16 PRTs -- essentially, one in each of Iraq's 18 provinces, except for the three northern Kurdish provinces, which would share a regional PRT. The latest plan envisions nine U.S.-led PRTs and two or three coalition-led ones. The Iraqi-led teams might be assigned the remaining provinces.
Though Britain and Italy appear furthest along toward taking charge of PRTs, U.S. officials said, South Korea, Japan, Poland and Australia have also expressed interest.
"There's an understanding that the same PRT model may not be applicable in every province," the administration official said. "Each province will be at a different level of development and have different needs. So you may have a U.S.-led PRT, a coalition-led one or an Iraqi PRT."