- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The State Department is quietly forming a small army to protect diplomatic personnel in Iraq after U.S. military forces leave the country at the end of 2011, taking its firepower with them.

Department officials are asking the Pentagon to provide heavy military gear, including Black Hawk helicopters, and say they also will need substantial support from private contractors.

The shopping list demonstrates the department’s reluctance to count on Iraq’s army and police forces for security, despite the billions of dollars the U.S. invested to equip and train them. And it shows that President Obama is having a hard time keeping his pledge to reduce U.S. reliance on contractors, a practice that flourished under the Bush administration.

In an early April request to the Pentagon, Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, is seeking 24 Black Hawks, 50 bomb-resistant vehicles, heavy cargo trucks, fuel trailers, and high-tech surveillance systems. Mr. Kennedy asks that the equipment, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, be transferred at “no cost” from military stocks.

Contractors will be needed to maintain the gear and provide other support to diplomatic staff, according to the State Department, a potential financial boon for companies such as the Houston-based KBR Inc. that still have a sizable presence in Iraq.

“After the departure of U.S. forces, we will continue to have a critical need for logistical and life-support of a magnitude and scale of complexity that is unprecedented in the history of the Department of State,” says Mr. Kennedy’s April 7 request to Ashton Carter, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition and technology.

Without the equipment, there will be “increased casualties,” according to attachments to Mr. Kennedy’s memo detailing the department’s needs.

The military equipment would be controlled by the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, according to the information Mr. Kennedy sent to the Pentagon. During the Bush administration, the bureau was heavily criticized by members of Congress for its management of Blackwater Worldwide and other private security firms working in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military has about 7,500 of the bomb-resistant vehicles — known as MRAPs — in Iraq. So shifting 50 to the State Department could be easily handled as the troops depart.

But handing over two dozen Black Hawks, which cost between $12 million and $18 million each depending on the model, would be more problematic. The aircraft are in short supply and heavily used by military forces in Afghanistan, where the primitive roads heighten the need for transportation by air.

The Defense Department has not formally responded to Mr. Kennedy’s memo.

Spokesmen for both departments said the two agencies are discussing the request.

About 90,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and that number is expected to fall to 50,000 by the end of August under Mr. Obama’s plan to remove all combat troops from the country. All American forces are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.

Departing, too, will be key crucial missions they performed, such as recovering downed aircraft, convoy security, bomb detection and disposal, and the ability to counter rocket and mortar attacks.

By September 2011, the 22 U.S.-led reconstruction teams spread throughout Iraq will be replaced by five “Enduring Presence Posts,” according to the documents Mr. Kennedy sent to the Pentagon. The State Department will be responsible for all the costs of operating these stations, including security, until at least 2015.

The department wants to use an existing Defense Department contract in Iraq to support these posts and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with essential services, including meals, mail delivery and laundry.