The State Department has asked each component of the massive U.S. diplomatic mission in Baghdad to analyze how a 25 percent cut would affect operations, part of a rapidly moving attempt to save money and establish what a top official on Wednesday called “a more normalized embassy presence.”
“We’re going to be looking at how we’re going to do that over the next year,” said Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides. “What we’re not going to do is make knee-jerk decisions” that could jeopardize the security of the thousands of U.S. citizens working in Iraq, he said.
Nides spoke to reporters in the aftermath of news reports Tuesday that the Obama administration is reevaluating the size of the embassy less than two months after the final withdrawal of U.S. military forces in Iraq. Significantly more than half of the 16,000 U.S. citizens and non-Iraqis working under the embassy umbrella provide security for the rest.
“As much as I would love to continue to reduce numbers of people and cost, I will not sacrifice the security of our people,” Nides said.
He declined to speculate on the number or scope of the cuts, but he said that “hopefully we’ll be able to reduce our size by reducing dependency” on contractors who supply food and other services. The embassy hopes to employ more Iraqis and buy more goods on the local market.
Congress is pushing for a smaller embassy with an eye toward cutting some of its $6 billion budget. Senior administration officials and contractors said the situation in Iraq simply does not allow such an outsize presence.
Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, sketched a far starker scenario than the “robust presence” and “very successful mission” that Nides described.
“I don’t want to say we miscalculated, but we initially built a plan based on two things that have not played out as we had hoped,” one senior administration official said. “One was the politics [in Iraq], and the other was security.”
A contractor with major operations in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Iraqis “don’t want” the presence or the advice of the many Americans who work as mentors and advisers to the government. Even if they did, the contractor said, the political climate is such that “no Iraqi is going to go on record saying he wants something from America.”
The embassy compound was locked down for nearly all of December out of security concerns, and the vast majority of U.S. personnel rarely leave its confines. U.S. trainers for middle- and senior-level police officials, located for convenience across the street from Iraq’s national police headquarters and police academy, have been unable to cross that street without heavy security and have largely ceased any outside movement.
The police training is already a shadow of what originally was envisioned in 2010, before the State Department abandoned plans to duplicate a program begun by the U.S. military. After the initial proposal for 400 trainers was cut in half, plans were revised again last year.
Today, there are about 100 trainers, the majority of them retired senior U.S. police officials with about three times as many security personnel assigned to protect them. Most of their one-year contracts will expire this summer and would have to be renewed within the next few months if the program is to continue.
“My understanding is that they’re all hunkered down in FOB Shield,” a former U.S. military forward operating base that is now officially known as the Baghdad Police Annex, “and they’re not doing anything,” the contractor said. “That program is probably on life-support.”
As part of the process, embassy officials have been told to look at their operations with a possible 25 percent cut in mind.
“Nobody’s been ordered to do anything” in terms of specific staff cuts, the senior administration official said, “although this train is moving pretty fast. To be honest, it should move fast.”