Embassy Staff In Baghdad Inadequate, Rice Is Told

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ryan C. Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, bluntly told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a cable dated May 31 that the embassy in Baghdad -- the largest and most expensive U.S. embassy -- lacks enough well-qualified staff members and that its security rules are too restrictive for Foreign Service officers to do their jobs.

"Simply put, we cannot do the nation's most important work if we do not have the Department's best people," Crocker said in the memo.

The unclassified cable underscores the State Department's struggle to find its role in the turmoil in Iraq. With a 2007 budget of more than $1 billion and a staff that has expanded to more than 1,000 Americans and 4,000 third-country nationals, the embassy has become the center of a bureaucratic battle between Crocker, who wants to strengthen the staff, and some members of Congress, who are increasingly skeptical about the diplomatic mission's rising costs.

"In essence, the issue is whether we are a Department and a Service at war," Crocker wrote. "If we are, we need to organize and prioritize in a way that reflects this, something we have not done thus far." In the memo, Crocker drew upon the recommendations of a management review he requested for the embassy shortly after arriving in Baghdad two months ago.

"He's panicking," said one government official who recently returned from Baghdad, adding that Crocker is carrying a heavy workload as the United States presses the Iraqi government to meet political benchmarks.

"You could use a well-managed political section of 50 people" who know what they are doing, the official said, but Crocker does not have it because many staffers assigned to the embassy are "too young for the job," or are not qualified and are "trying to save their careers" by taking an urgent assignment in Iraq.

"They need a cohesive, coherent effort on all fronts," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "It's just overwhelming."

But some lawmakers have balked at what they consider the unbridled expansion of the embassy. "Having said over and over again that we don't want to be seen as an occupying force in Iraq, we're building the largest embassy that we have. . . . And it just seems to grow and grow and grow," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said to Rice during a hearing last month. "Can we just review who we really need and send the rest of the people home?"

The State Department said that as of last week, 99 percent of the positions in the embassy and in regional reconstruction teams had been filled. But State officials privately concede that in the rush to fill slots -- each person serves only one year -- not enough attention has been paid to the management of the flux of people.

"In terms of Iraq and Afghanistan, the secretary has put the department on a war footing," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "If one of her ambassadors says he needs something, she will get it for him."

Crocker, in an interview, confirmed the authenticity of the cable. He insisted it was not intended as criticism of Rice or of the staff. He said the cable reflected the urgent nature of the tasks he has faced since becoming ambassador.

"The big issue for me, in my estimation, was simply not having enough people," Crocker said. "The people here are heroic. I need more people, and that's the thing, not that the people who are here shouldn't be here or couldn't do it." Crocker said he does not know why the changes he is pressing for had not taken place sooner. The embassy was established three years ago, when the Coalition Provisional Authority was dissolved.

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