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Military to Protect U.S. Aid Teams in Iraq

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

U.S. military forces will provide security for new reconstruction teams being set up in Iraq's provinces to coordinate U.S. aid, the State Department announced yesterday.

The announcement followed months of disagreement between the Pentagon and the State Department over whether to use U.S. troops or private security guards to ensure the safety of dozens of diplomats, aid workers and other civilian specialists who would staff the new outposts. State has argued that the teams warrant U.S. military protection, but the Pentagon, eager to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, had resisted committing to the new mission.

One senior State Department official involved in the interagency dispute said a general understanding was reached after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed concerns about relying on private guards, and after it became clear that State could get the funding and the personnel for the teams and was moving ahead with them.

"In terms of the Department of Defense and Department of State working together on this issue, there's a total policy agreement," Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said in opening remarks at his regular briefing yesterday. "Department of Defense will be providing security."

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that U.S. forces will be involved but said, "In general, the arrangements include facility and site security," omitting any mention of movement security. That appeared to leave open how team members would be protected while traveling off base.

Plans to establish the groups, known as provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, were announced last fall and billed as an important initiative for rebuilding Iraq. A similar program has been tried in Afghanistan with some success.

In Iraq, the idea is to staff the teams with political, economic, legal and civil-military relations specialists who can help not only distribute aid but also advise regional Iraqi officials, thereby fortifying provincial governments that had little authority under Saddam Hussein. But since three pilot groups were set up quickly -- in Mosul, Kirkuk and Hilla -- in November, the Pentagon and the State Department have haggled over a number of security, staffing and funding issues.

Defense officials have warned that guarding the PRTs could draw forces from more critical counterinsurgency missions. They noted that private guards are already being used extensively to protect State Department personnel throughout Iraq.

But State Department officials have argued that hiring and equipping more guards for the new teams would delay the program and run up the cost. Rice was described as having been particularly worried about ensuring adequate coordination between an expanded private security force and U.S. troops.

"She was concerned that, no matter how hard you try, there would be differences in radio frequencies, in vehicles, in a variety of things that could get in the way of rapidly rescuing people," the senior State Department official said. "She felt more comfortable if it could be all military."

Pentagon officials had also raised questions about the willingness of Congress to fund the teams and the ability of the State Department to staff them. They "wanted to ensure that we would come up with actual teams of real people who would be assigned for significant periods of time -- typically a year -- before they committed their forces," said the senior official, who was granted anonymity to speak more freely about internal deliberations.

McCormack told reporters yesterday that PRT recruitment is doing well, saying that 37 of 43 available slots have been filled. Earlier in the day, The Washington Post published a chart based on the State Department's computer-generated internal bid list as of April 7, indicating a much lower level of interest in working in the PRTs. But a department official said yesterday that the bid list did not appear to have been updated and did not reflect a number of PRT placements.

State Department officials were somewhat vague about when the new understanding about the use of troops was reached. One official suggested that the issue may not have been entirely settled. He said the Pentagon's willingness to provide troops may remain dependent on the establishment of PRTs on or near U.S. military bases.

" 'Agreement' is too serious a term," the official said. "I think there was just a general meeting of the minds. We believe that if we can come up with a PRT team in an area that makes sense for the coalition forces, the coalition will provide what we need."

A fourth PRT was inaugurated late last month in Baghdad. Plans now call for a total of eight U.S.-led PRTs, four others to be run by coalition partners, and another six by Iraqi authorities.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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