By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The removal of about 140,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 will be a "massive and expensive effort" that is likely to increase rather than lower Iraq-related expenditures during the withdrawal and for several years after its completion, government investigators said in a report released yesterday.
"Although reducing troops would appear to lower costs," the Government Accountability Office said, withdrawals from previous conflicts have shown that costs more often rise in the near term. The price of equipment repairs and replacements, along with closing or turning over 283 U.S. military installations in Iraq, "will likely be significant," the GAO reported.
Even the smallest facilities, with 16 to 200 combat troops, will take up to two months to close, the report said. Several dozen large installations -- such as Balad Air Base, with 24,000 inhabitants -- are likely to take 18 months or more.
The report, "Iraq: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight," lists other challenges for the withdrawal and post-withdrawal periods, including uncertainties about security for civilian officials, the enormous size of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi government's ability to sustain basic services and infrastructure.
Two timetables are simultaneously underway in Iraq. Under a U.S.-Iraq agreement signed in December, U.S. forces, now numbering about 140,000, according to the GAO, are to withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns to military bases by the end of June and completely leave the country by the end of 2011. The terms of the agreement, however, are subject to a nationwide referendum in Iraq in July; rejection of the accord would force all U.S. forces to depart as early as July 2010.
President Obama has said all "combat" troops will depart Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving a residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 until the end of the following year. According to Army officials interviewed by the investigators, the intention is for six of the current 14 brigades in Iraq to remain behind after the combat departures.
Although Obama said that the drawdown would begin this year with the departure of two brigades, none of what the GAO estimates will be about 128,000 troops remaining after that point would leave until sometime after Iraqi elections in December. Thus, the departure of the vast majority of combat forces will be sandwiched into a period of about six months next year.
The report notes that many implementing details of the December U.S.-Iraq agreement remain unspecified. After June, for example, all U.S. military operations must be conducted with Iraqi government approval, yet "it is unclear whether U.S. forces will have a 'blanket' authorization to conduct certain types of operations, such as medical evaluations or routine joint patrols," it said.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Baghdad currently numbers about 1,300 officials, including 450 assigned to provincial reconstruction teams outside the embassy, the report said. "How does the U.S. government plan to provide security, housing, medical evaluation, and life support for its civilian personnel as U.S. forces draw down and eventually leave Iraq?" it asked.
The Iraqi government, it said, still has not enacted crucially important laws to share oil revenue among the provinces or to disarm militias. Although it has passed legislation on de-Baathification, amnesty for militias and provincial powers, implementation has been slow.
The report questioned the government's ability to provide critical services to its people, noting that the United States has spent about 87 percent, or about $9.5 billion, of the nearly $11 billion it allocated for reconstruction in the oil, electricity and water sectors since 2003. By comparison, Iraq -- which has a $47 billion budget surplus -- has spent about 12 percent, or $2 billion, of the more than $17 billion it allocated for those sectors over the same period.
"According to U.S. officials," it said, "Iraqi managers lack the skill level and authority to create plans and buy the materials necessary to sustain projects in the energy and water sectors." Despite both U.S. and Iraqi expenditures, the report said, electricity supply in 2008 met only 52 percent of demand and "many Iraqis are without water" or do not have access to a safe supply.