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Troops departing Iraq leave big job for diplomats
Civil war threat, ethnic disputes among issues
As the White House eagerly highlights the departure of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the small army of American diplomats left behind is embarking on a long and perilous path to keeping the volatile country from slipping back to the brink of civil war.
Among the challenges are helping Iraq’s deeply divided politicians form a new government, refereeing long-simmering Arab-Kurd territorial disputes, advising on attracting foreign investment, pushing for improved government services and fleshing out a blueprint for future U.S.-Iraqi relations.
President Obama also is banking on the diplomats — about 300, protected by as many as 7,000 private security contractors — to assume the duties of the U.S. military. That includes protecting U.S. personnel from attack and managing the training of Iraqi police, starting in October 2011.
The Iraq insurgency, which began shortly after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad in April 2003, is why the U.S. only now is entering the post-combat phase of stabilizing Iraq. Originally, the U.S. thought Iraq would be peaceful within months of the invasion, allowing for a short-lived occupation and the relatively quick emergence of a viable government.
“Regardless of the reasons for going to war, everything now depends on a successful transition to an effective and unified Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces that can bring both security and stability to the average Iraqi,” says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In his view, that transition will take five to 10 years.
The question is whether progress will be interrupted or reversed once American combat power is gone.
The U.S. will have 50,000 troops in Iraq when the combat mission officially ends Aug. 31; they are scheduled to draw down to zero by Dec. 31, 2011. Until then, they will advise and train Iraqi security forces and provide security and transport for the diplomats.
“We are fully prepared to assume our responsibilities as we move through this transition from a military-led effort to a civilian-led effort,” department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Iraq watchers have their doubts.
“So it is a huge mistake to assume it can’t” happen in Iraq, whose civil strife in 2005-07 was so violent that many Americans assumed the war was lost and thought U.S. troops should give up and go home.
Mr. Pollack considers the State Department ill-suited for its new tasks — starting with the police training mission and including the complex developmental problems such as improving Iraq’s water system.
The department has been strongly criticized for its past work in Iraqi police training. An October 2007 report by Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart W. Bowen Jr. said the State Department had so badly managed a February 2004 contract for Iraqi police training that the department could not tell what it got for the $1.2 billion it spent.
In May 2004, President George W. Bush put the Pentagon in charge of all security-force development.
The newly departed U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Christopher Hill, says he sees brighter days ahead for Iraq, but he also laments “woefully low” supplies of electricity and deeply ingrained tensions among the three main competitors for political power: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
“There is a mountain of mistrust,” Mr. Hill said.
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