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Much uncertain in Iraq as U.S. officials enter crucial handover phase

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 24, 2010; 6:27 PM

IN BAGHDAD At a time when Washington policymakers would prefer to put the Iraq war behind them, the American mission in Baghdad is becoming more complicated as U.S. officials embark on one of the most complex power transfers in American history.

Many aspects of that handoff - to be completed in just 15 months, when all American troops are due to leave Iraq - have not yet begun or been decided upon, military officials and diplomats in Baghdad acknowledge.

Since the launch of New Dawn, as the military mission was re-branded on Sept. 1, the United States has entered a gray zone that has left many Iraqis - and Americans - puzzled about the U.S. role.

With 50,000 American troops left in the country, combat is now officially over. But American F-16s are still dropping bombs, and troops engage as "advisers'' alongside Iraqi special forces on dangerous counterterrorism missions. On the civilian side, U.S. officials are looking to the Iraqi government to take the lead, but squabbling has left Iraq without a functioning parliament since a March election.

U.S. officials say it is difficult for them to get clear answers from their Iraqi counterparts, including how much money the Iraqi government has in its banks. That's a key question for Congress as it considers new funding requests for Iraq.

"We have got to work at ensuring that everybody understands what is happening here," acknowledged Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq. The shift from combat to "stability" operations "hasn't resonated with everybody back in the U.S. or even here in Iraq. . . . Advise, train, assist is not necessarily well understood."

The longer-term vision beyond New Dawn is even blurrier.

Some question whether transition planning is getting underway too late to be completed in time.

In House testimony on Thursday, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, raised concerns about the State Department's readiness to take over projects from the military.

The projects the State Department will "inherit from other agencies, as they leave, are many times greater than those it has traditionally managed," Bowen said, according to his prepared testimony. "It takes time to nurture an organizational culture that respects the need for planning and to develop a workforce with appropriate skills. State needs to promptly address this issue."

Those concerns are echoed by some in the military here.

"If you're starting now, you're already behind the curve," said one U.S. military officer involved in equipping Iraqi security forces. "And they're not even really starting now. I don't think they'll be ready for some time. They don't know which contractors they're going to use. It's a myriad of things they need to address. Even the time we have to end the mission won't really be enough time to do it correctly."

The officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said it is not enough to simply hand over the keys to State Department diplomats.

The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James F. Jeffrey, said there's plenty of time to sort it all out. If a program is going to continue, he said, "we'll find a way to continue that program."

A key question is who will protect the diplomats when they move around the country once the military withdraws from the Baghdad Embassy, as well as from planned consulates in Basra and Irbil and branch offices in Mosul and Kirkuk.

Even today, with 50,000 troops and tens of thousands of security contractors still in Iraq, many U.S. diplomats never leave the fortified embassy compound during their tours because of security concerns. The military's withdrawal could make outings even more infrequent if security does not improve, and replacing Army protection with additional private security contractors could be pricey.

During a visit to Mosul on Monday, Jeffrey rode to meetings in a motorcade of MRAPs, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles.

"The movement security when we go out, the securing of the roads, the quick-reaction forces, the helicopters, all that, that's a mission we're going to have to take over, and that's a challenging mission," Jeffrey said.

Once the military withdraws, the embassy could need several billion dollars in annual funding to carry out all its designated tasks, Jeffrey said. Such funding levels may face resistance on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are already balking at the administration's $2 billion request to equip Iraq's forces next year.

During his trip, Jeffrey visited a base where the U.S. military coordinates U.S.-Kurdish-Arab patrols and checkpoints, a program conceived by the American military to defuse local tensions. U.S. troops have already withdrawn from four of the patrols as part of the drawdown in forces. They will eventually exit the remaining 11, leaving the future of the mission in doubt.

The limits of the military's advising mission are fuzzy. When suicide bombers entered a Baghdad military headquarters on Sept. 5, U.S. forces fired at and killed the assailants while an American aerial drone provided key imagery. In another incident six days later, when Iraqi troops accompanied by American forces came under fire by al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters in a date palm orchard in Diyala, U.S. forces dropped two 500-pound bombs.

Some general parameters of the transition have been established. An Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq will oversee whoever is eventually given the task of advising and equipping the Iraqi army. That could include U.S. troops who would technically be deployed under the embassy's auspices, U.S. officials said. The embassy is taking over responsibility for police training, which is now carried out by civilian contractors but under the command of the U.S. military.

One thing the United States will not do is initiate any more brick-and-mortar reconstruction projects, officials said. When Iraqis asked Jeffrey during his visit to Mosul if the United States could build a new bridge, the ambassador declined.

"We have heard all about the money spent in Iraq. But the Americans are going to leave a country that doesn't have electricity," Sheik Salem Arab, from nearby Tal Afar, told Jeffrey.

Jeffrey tried to reassure the local leaders that despite appearances, the United States is here to stay. "The United States is going to be doing everything it can," he said, "to maintain a strong presence in Iraq after December 2011.''

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