Iraq is a shambles. Insurgents fighters are pushing south with the apparent end goal of taking Baghdad, the country’s capital. Meanwhile, after the Iraqi military fled, Kurdish troops in Iraq’s north have taken control of the city of Kirkuk, extending the autonomous region they already controlled.
It’s a volatile situation, and it isn’t clear where the spiral stops. While the United States pulled virtually all of its remaining troops from Iraq in 2011, there are thousands of Americans still there. They include U.S. diplomats and embassy personnel, private security contractors, and private military advisers to the Iraqi government.
It’s also unclear what precautions each of these groups has taken as violence in Iraq mushrooms. The embassy in Baghdad released an emergency message on Tuesday, noting the ongoing military action between Iraqi forces and insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Mosul. Since then, the insurgents have pushed south, gaining more territory in Tikrit and other areas north of Baghdad.
On Wednesday, the State Department issued a new travel warning for Iraq, its first since March. It warns that U.S. citizens remain “at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence” in Iraq, outlining many of the same threats U.S. troops faced during its military operations there, including improvised explosive devices, mines, mortars and rockets.
“Numerous insurgent groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), previously known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq, remain active and terrorist activity and violence persist in many areas of the country at levels unseen since 2007,” the State Department’s warning said. “Iraqi forces are conducting military operations in Ninewah and Anbar Provinces against insurgent and terrorist organizations that have occupied territory and cities within those provinces.”
A State Department official said in January that it still had about 5,000 contractors working in Iraq at the embassy in Baghdad and at consulates in Basra and Irbil. About 2,000 were U.S. civilians. That reflected a steep decrease from January 2013, when the State Department had about 12,500 contractors — 4,500 of them Americans — but it still underscores the significant logistics an evacuation of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq would require.
In a different era, the United States might already have shuttered its embassy in Iraq in the face of violence and a host country unable to check civil unrest, according to a State Department inspector general report released in May 2013. It was kept open and identified as a test bed for “expeditionary diplomacy,” the report said.
“Because the U.S. Government believes it is important to engage directly with Iraq’s Government and people, however, the mission requires an unprecedented level of security and life support,” the report said, adding that risk assessments are conducted every day.
There are now about 250 U.S. troops in Iraq, Pentagon officials said. That’s down from 157,800 at the height of the U.S. military surge there in 2009. About half of those who remain are Marine Corps embassy security guards who protect diplomatic compounds. Many others work for the Office of Security Cooperation – Iraq, which still provides some advice to the Iraqi military. A Defense Department inspector general report issued in September recommended that it be integrated with the U.S. Mission in Baghdad to improve communication and collaboration.
There also is an unknown number of U.S. security contractors protecting State Department personnel in Iraq. They work from a $10 billion, 5-year Worldwide Protective Services contract the department signed with eight companies in 2010. They include defense giants like Dyncorp International and Triple Canopy. Dyncorp also signed a five-year deal with the State Department in 2010 that could be worth up to $894 million to provide a fleet of aircraft, including UH-1 utility helicopter and DHC-8 planes.