- 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.

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.”

But Hamid Nassir al-Dhalimy, a political scientist at Basra University, said the diplomats’ worth is measured far beyond the bricks and mortar they will no longer be funding.

Without the steadying hand of the U.S. Embassy, Mr. al-Dhalimy said, “I am sure the [Iraqi] government will collapse.”

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