- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

BASRA, Iraq | Make no mistake, Mazin al-Nazeni hates Americans. Soldiers, diplomats, oilmen - the militant leader in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, considers all of them to be Enemy No. 1.

But U.S. diplomats in the southern port city say they’re here to stay - even if it’s at their peril.

It’s a quandary for the Obama administration as the U.S. tries to move from invading power to normal diplomatic partner. But with the last U.S. troops obligated to be gone by year’s end, the protection of American diplomats will fall almost entirely to private contractors and Iraqi security forces.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has raised fears that diplomats in Iraq won’t be safe, and the dour pronouncements coming from Mr. al-Nazeni and others in his hard-line Sadrist movement are not encouraging.

“We want to leave Iraq to the Iraqis,” he said in an interview last month. “We don’t need diplomats. We don’t need an ambassador. We don’t need a consulate. We haven’t seen the Americans do anything but make promises and falsehoods - nothing else.”

Last week, the movement’s leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, made it even more explicit in a statement read aloud to tens of thousands of supporters rallying in Baghdad:

“What if the U.S. forces and others stay in our beloved lands? What if their companies and embassy headquarters will continue to exist with the American flags hoisted on them? Will you be silent? Will you overlook this?”

The threat carries added weight because the Sadrists serve in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Mr. al-Maliki told the Associated Press in an interview this month that after the U.S. withdrawal, “all the regulations that govern diplomacy will be adopted.”

The militants have ramped up the rhetoric in apparent response to calls coming from Kurdish and other minorities for U.S. troops to stay, and the Obama administration’s wish to keep perhaps several thousand troops here beyond the deadline to preserve the country’s fragile stability.

However, assuming the withdrawal is completed as planned, the U.S. diplomats left in Iraq in 2012 will have to get used to functioning without U.S. forces to guard them in their fortified compounds and transport them to meetings with Iraqi political officials, academics and business leaders.

In Baghdad, diplomats rarely leave the Green Zone.

In Basra, however, they are out and about the city three to four times daily, said Barbara Leaf, the State Department team leader here. That could drop to one or two missions daily without the military’s protections.

“Security drives everything,” Ms. Leaf said in an interview. “The task that the Department of State is taking on is something we haven’t done before … in an environment that on any given day, in various places around the country, still feels like a combat environment.”

“We’re all craving normalcy, that’s the thing,” she said.

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