U.S. To Scale Back Diplomatic Staff In Iraq

U.S. combat troops are gone from Iraq and soon, up to half the diplomatic staff will leave too. State Department officials say it's part of a plan to scale back embassy operations there. But conflicts with the Iraqi government may also be driving the decision. Tim Arango, a reporter with The New York Times, talks to Steve Inskeep about the decision.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For American diplomats, this next story is awkward. The United States is downsizing the largest embassy it has ever built. That embassy in Baghdad was built as a base for diplomats and contractors helping to stabilize Iraq, a presence now totaling 16,000 people. But now, just weeks after the last U.S. troops departed, the State Department is planning to cut the embassy workforce by as much as half. Reporter Tim Arango broke this story in The New York Times. He's with us now from Baghdad.

Welcome to the program.

TIM ARANGO: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: So what happened?

ARANGO: It really is a remarkable thing that so quickly after the American troops left that the State Department realized that the embassy that they built is too big, is too costly and the situation on the ground means that they can't get out and do the things that they like to do to justify that cost.

INSKEEP: What do you mean the situation on the ground?

ARANGO: Well, there's two things going on. There's the persistent security problems that prevent diplomats from moving around as much as they'd like. And then what they didn't plan on was how the Iraqis would react as soon as the military left in terms of obstructing what they want to do.

They immediately started enforcing customs regulations that the Americans were not accustomed to abiding by. And then there's the situation with the visas. Prime Minister Maliki now - his office has to approve all the visas for Americans. And so it's resulted in these lengthy delays.

INSKEEP: Lengthy delays in even getting the staff into Iraq. And then they have difficulty moving around once they're in Iraq?

ARANGO: Absolutely. There's a new kidnapping threat in the Green Zone. And as such is getting out of the Green Zone to interact with ordinary Iraqis, there's even new security procedures for moving around in the Green Zone which is probably one of the most fortified places in the world.

INSKEEP: We will now, the hostility of the Iraqi authorities that you've described, does that suggest that the Iraqis just really don't want the Americans there, or certainly not in such numbers?

ARANGO: I think it suggests that. It also suggests how easy an issue the American presence is for Iraqi politicians to sort of demagogue on, and to use with their own public. They don't want to be seen in public supporting the Americans or accommodating them in every way. So, even if privately they may say, yes, we want help from the Americans. When they go out publicly and speak to their people, they don't say the same things.

INSKEEP: OK, you said privately. Does the U.S. still, at least privately, have very many friends in the Iraqi government?

ARANGO: I think privately in particular, you know, Ambassador Jeffrey is widely respected among Iraqi officials and there's a lot of leverage there. You know, the other thing that the American are still doing here is selling a lot of weapons to the Iraqis and they certainly want of those weapons. And that's one area of leverage that the Americans still have.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Jeffrey, of course, he's the U.S. ambassador there, the man who may now preside over cutting the 16,000-person presence as much as in half.

Who was it that thought that 16,000 people was an appropriate presence to begin with?

ARANGO: You know, this is something that they have planned for all of last year and they were constantly briefing reporters here on the state transition. But I think at that time, especially a year ago, there was a wide belief among the American diplomats that the American military would still be here, and that the American presence would be much bigger than it is. But as the year one on, last year, it became clear that there was not going to be a new agreement to allow troops to stay.

And I think the State Department then realized that they couldn't do a lot of the things that they wanted to do, without the military here.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Mr. Arango, you write of this as a sign of declining U.S. influence in Iraq. What do you mean by that? Is this a country where the U.S. is just - the reality is the U.S. is going to have less and less to say about what goes on?

Yeah, I think a lot of the things, if you look at the - how the Iraqis behaved after the military left and the roadblocks they put up to the diplomats, just shows that the Iraqis are really eager to assert their sovereignty. And they're really eager to sort of move on from the American military occupation of the last, you know, seven, eight years.

Tim Arango of The New York Times is in Baghdad. Thanks very much.

ARANGO: Thank you very much for having me.

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