By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 29, 2009
BAGHDAD, Aug. 28 -- The cost of running the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is projected to rise in the coming years as the world's largest diplomatic mission weans itself from the support it receives from the U.S. military, the State Department's acting inspector general said in a report this week.
Harold W. Geisel also said an embassy office that oversees infrastructure projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars is chronically understaffed and may be unable to complete its work by May, when its charter ends.
In a separate report, Geisel noted that the State Department has no plans to open consulates in Iraq, despite the looming closures of provincial embassy offices as the U.S. military withdraws.
Although the United States is reducing the scope of its diplomatic engagements in Iraq, U.S. officials anticipate that security expenses will contribute to the higher cost of running the embassy over the next couple of years. American officials project that the embassy will need more than $1.8 billion each year in 2010 and 2011, compared with this year's estimated $1.5 billion budget, according to the inspector general.
The embassy depends heavily on the military for security, transportation, and delivery of food and other supplies.
The 130,000-member U.S. military force in Iraq will be reduced to roughly 50,000 by next August as part of a bilateral security agreement. The remaining troops must leave by the end of 2011 unless Iraqis vote in a January referendum for them to leave a year early.
"Planning by Embassy Baghdad for this transition is essential," Geisel wrote in one of the two reports released Tuesday. "At the time of the review, although several sections of the embassy were involved in planning at the operational level, there was no overall transition plan anticipating the U.S. military drawdown and no senior level coordinator for these activities."
The inspector general's team conducted the review between December and June. In July, embassy officials told Geisel that they were finalizing a comprehensive transition plan. Philip Frayne, a spokesman for the embassy, said it appreciates the inspector general's feedback and is studying the recommendations in the reports.
"The embassy is actively developing a transition plan to accommodate this change of mission and the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq," Frayne said in an e-mail. "As the U.S. mission in Iraq changes, the mission and scale of the embassy will reflect the scope of our engagement in our bilateral relationship and start to resemble those in other embassies around the world."
The first report highlighted the chronic staffing shortage at a key embassy department that handles large-scale infrastructure projects and works closely with top Iraqi officials. The Iraq Transition Assistance Office, which oversees more than 216 projects worth more than $700 million, has 21 vacancies out of its authorized 46 slots, the inspector general said.
Filling the slots is challenging because the office was given a three-year charter, which expires in May. Most embassy officials serve one-year assignments in Baghdad.
"According to the ITAO director, the staff shortage reduces the ability to visit construction sites and meet with Iraqi government and contractor officials, resulting in project delays, diminishing performance and less effective contract management and oversight," the report said.
The U.S. Embassy has 88 special agents who supervise about 1,300 security contractors and 1,900 perimeter guards. The Iraqi government is expanding access to the Green Zone, where the embassy is located, and two large U.S. military bases near the embassy will close over the next couple of years. American military officers are training Iraqi soldiers who patrol the Green Zone.
As the Green Zone "transitions to greater Iraqi control and public access, the performance and reliability of these Iraqi forces to protect the [embassy] personnel, especially from the very real threat of kidnapping, will be paramount," the report said.
As the U.S. military leaves, diplomats will begin taking commercial flights into and out of Baghdad and will need to find new ways to get fuel for their vehicles and food supplies, almost certainly at a higher cost, the report said.
U.S. Embassy employees currently fly on military aircraft to Iraq, in violation of the security agreement, the inspector general said. The Iraqi government "has not yet objected" to this, Geisel said, but the "technical violation" is of concern to U.S. military officials in Baghdad.
The embassy has 23 provincial offices, many of which depend on the U.S. military for security and transportation. The embassy expects that 16 will still be operational by next August and that six will remain so by December 2011. In recent months, the State Department has closed three of its four regional embassy offices, leaving only the one in Hilla, south of Baghdad, open.
When the State Department reached an agreement with the Iraqi government in 2004 for the use of diplomatic and consular facilities, it was given titles to properties in Basra, in southern Iraq, and Mosul, in the north, where it was to establish consulates.
However, embassy officials told the inspector general's team that the State Department is unlikely to establish a consulate in Mosul because it "remains one of the most insecure areas in Iraq. The officials further stressed that planning for future consulates in Iraq is at the very preliminary stage."
Separately, two U.S. soldiers were killed Friday when their convoy was attacked in Baghdad, the military said.
The soldiers were assigned to the 13th Sustainment Command, the military said. No additional details about the attack were provided.
At least 4,337 U.S. service members have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, according to an Associated Press tally.