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Top diplomat defends size, cost of State Dept. presence in Iraq

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; A07

The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq on Tuesday defended the size and cost of the State Department's operations in that country, telling lawmakers that a significant diplomatic footprint will be necessary after the withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of this year.

James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that his staff of 8,000 will grow in the coming year to about 17,000 people, the vast majority of whom will be contractors.

And while the State Department is spending about $2 billion annually on Iraq operations now, it plans to spend an additional $1 billion on the construction of facilities in each of the next several years.

"We face a critical moment now in Iraq, where we will either step up to the plate, finish the job and build on the sacrifices made," Jeffrey said, "or we will risk core U.S. national security interests, be penny-wise and pound-foolish and cede the field to al-Qaeda and other dangerous regional influences."

After the military pullout, the State Department will also take over a police training program for the Iraqis. The cost of that program and others should be reduced in the future, Jeffrey said, as the Iraqis, who currently spend $8 billion a year on their security forces, take over more of the burden.

"While all U.S. government work is expensive in Iraq due to the security situation, a robust civilian presence represents a significant savings for taxpayers from the bills they have been paying for the past eight years," Jeffery said in his prepared statement.

The U.S. mission will also need to expand its fleet of four fixed-wing transport aircraft and a fleet of 37 helicopters operated by State's Bureau of International Narcotics out of three airports in the country.

The State Department asked the Pentagon to transfer 24 Black Hawk helicopters to the mission, but the military needed them in Afghanistan, Jeffrey told the senators. As a result, State has had to purchase 20 additional Sikorsky helicopters and four more Hueys.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the panel, asked whether it would have been less costly if some U.S. military personnel remained to provide security instead of private security contractors.

"For the kind of security threats we have, we think we have a model that will work," Jeffrey said.

Despite earlier problems, Jeffrey and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III , the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, assured the senators that they were working together to transfer to the embassy activities such as military sales and funding of Iraqi security forces.

An Office of Security Cooperation is being planned to mentor the Iraqi military. The office will be run by State officials but will include Defense personnel, along with about 800 contractors. The office will also handle the $13 billion worth of military equipment that Iraq is buying through the Pentagon's military sales program.

The office will occupy space at the embassy and at five other sites across the country, according to a staff study released Tuesday by the Foreign Relations Committee. That study warned that the withdrawal of U.S. troops could jeopardize the security and political gains made in Iraq.

"Given the prohibitive costs of security and the capacity limitations of the State Department, the United States should consider a less ambitious diplomatic presence in Iraq," the study says.

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