By ROBERT BURNS
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 6:59 PM
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration could be overstating what U.S. diplomats can do to contain Iraq's ethnic and sectarian tensions without U.S. military forces, a State Department audit concluded Tuesday, raising fresh concerns about the planned pullout of American troops next year.
The auditors also questioned whether American diplomats who remain behind will be adequately protected against insurgent violence, and their report faulted Washington for its planning of the transition from a U.S. military-led mission in Iraq to one run by American civilians in 2011.
The audit's findings echo worries expressed by some U.S. defense analysts and former diplomats. They say hard-won security gains in Iraq could crumble if U.S. forces leave on schedule.
In the latest outbreak of violence, bombings and mortar strikes killed dozens and wounded scores across Baghdad's mostly Shiite neighborhoods Tuesday. The bloodshed came just two days after gunmen in the Iraqi capital held a Christian congregation hostage in a siege that ended with 58 people dead.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. condemns the bombings and stands ready to "assist as requested" by Iraqi authorities in pursuing those responsible for the attacks.
"These are reprehensible attacks by extremists attempting to stoke tension between people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds in Iraq who seek to live in peace," Toner said.
In its report, the State Department's office of inspector general said stability in Iraq may be years away. It warned that the failure of Iraqi political leaders to form a unity government has interfered with the "urgent task" of planning for Washington's post-2011 diplomatic role.
Stephen Biddle, an Iraq watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it will be difficult for U.S. diplomats to keep a lid on Sunni-Shiite and Arab-Kurd rivalries in the absence of a sizable American military presence.
"Normally, stabilizing a situation like this requires peacekeepers," he said. "Peacekeepers are soldiers. That doesn't say there aren't important and valuable things that government civilians can do. But ... security protection is important in this environment, and that's not something State Department civilians do."
The report said the first six months of 2012 are likely to be "especially dangerous as extremists test U.S. resolve and Iraqi security forces' capabilities." It questioned whether the U.S. can meet President Barack Obama's goal of ensuring a safe work environment for remaining U.S. personnel in Iraq in 2012. "Security risks are expected to increase," the report said.
The auditors said the State Department should "stringently evaluate" whether it has the means to ensure its workers' safety in Iraq.
The report credited the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with making impressive steps in planning for the transition from U.S. military control. But the planning process "requires clearer and more timely high-level focus and policy guidance from Washington," including the White House, it said.
A central concern is the long-simmering tension in northern Iraq between Arabs and Kurds, mainly over the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both groups. Arabs and Kurds have managed to avoid large-scale clashes since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, with U.S. troops playing a critical security role.
The U.S. now has just under 50,000 troops in Iraq, down from a wartime high of 170,000.
The State Department is planning to establish temporary embassy outposts in Kirkuk and the northern city of Mosul with a primary mission of "mitigating and mediating" the Arab-Kurd conflict, which the audit notes has defied resolution for centuries.
"The mission intends to conduct their work in an environment in which 95 percent of the Iraqi population holds unfavorable or ambivalent views of the United States," the report said, adding that current plans call for the outposts to close as early as 2014.
"Does the United States risk overselling what it can and will accomplish?" the report asks. It does not explicitly answer that question but implies that the U.S. is promising more than it can deliver.
Ryan Crocker, ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said last week that the U.S. military's departure from Iraq will likely create a security vacuum and set Iraq on a dangerous course. He doubted whether the State Department has the means to keep Iraq stable.
"I worry that what we're seeing is a transition from a military lead to no lead," he said.
"Simply put, the capacity does not exist on the civilian side to take on the vast array of roles and missions that the military has so ably performed in Iraq."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.