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Under diplomatic conventions worldwide, U.S. diplomatic missions must entrust their overall security to the host country.

They may keep a small contingent of U.S. Marines and active-duty military trainers, but those are unlikely to be any use against a determined mob, as was demonstrated when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979 and its diplomats became hostages.

U.S. businesses operating in Iraq, including the oil companies Exxon Mobil and Occidental Petroleum Corp., rely on security contractors to protect their employees and offices.

The U.S. diplomatic presence after the withdrawal will be formidable.

The embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the largest American diplomatic mission in the world, will double to 16,000 employees by January, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey said this month.

The vast majority of them will be security contractors. Consulates and missions will operate in Basra and in Irbil, in Iraq’s Kurdish north, and in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

The northern offices will keep U.S. officials close to potential danger zones in territories disputed among Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen.

But without military protection, diplomats nationwide could be stuck inside their compounds, doing little more than stamping visas and hosting visiting delegations, said Ben Fluhart, who served as top U.S. envoy in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.

In Basra, with its picturesque riverfront, shiny hotels and bustling markets, life feels far more normal than in most Iraqi cities, and Ms. Leaf and her team say they generally feel safe traveling the streets.

There are protests against government corruption, lack of jobs and electricity shortages, but they are mostly peaceful.

The Basra base that the military shares with diplomats and contractors is rocketed about twice a month, and military units find several roadside bombs a week, said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Eric N. Atkisson.

Security concerns aside, Iraqis in Basra sound undecided on whether the diplomats are needed.

After the 2003 invasion and Saddam Hussein’s ouster and until their withdrawal in 2009, British forces operated most military efforts in southern Iraq.

The Americans funded projects to boost Basra’s water supply and rebuild its airport but left little that was tangible, said Jabbar A. Jaber al-Llatif, chairman of the Basra provincial council.

“When the Americans changed the regime and got Saddam out, we were thankful for that,” Mr. al-Llatif said. “But neither the Americans nor the British have made anything lasting in the years since then.”

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