U.S. Mission In Iraq To Shift To State Department

The U.S. State Department is making plans to expand its mission in Iraq when the remaining U.S. forces withdraw. That is scheduled to happen in 2011. The U.S. Embassy will rely heavily on private contractors, and will open branch offices and consulates in several key locations.

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It is a period of change in Iraq. By the end of this month, the U.S. military expects to have just 50,000 troops in the country, and the goal is to have them out by the end of next year. They'll be leaving behind the largest U.S. embassy in the world, and with the Defense Department handing over control, the State Department now finds itself taking on a very different role than it's used to.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.S. mission in Iraq is in the midst of many transitions. The U.S. is switching out ambassadors. U.S. troops have been departing in large numbers, and the Defense Department is still trying to determine what sort of equipment will be left behind for the Iraqi military and for U.S. diplomats and their security guards. On that last point, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl says the Defense Department is ready to help.

Mr. COLIN KAHL (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense): We've really tried to bend over backwards to identify those places where we can be most helpful in facilitating the transition to State, because, after all, you know, what's important is accomplishing the mission. So if that means us trying to figure out creative ways to help the State Department in transitioning the mission from us to them so that we can complete the mission as a country, that's what we're going to try to do.

KELEMEN: DOD plans to leave behind several dozen MRAPs, or mine-resistant vehicles, he says. The State Department is also hoping for other equipment, and while it plans to meet its own security needs, the State Department is also getting ready with the help of contractors to take over responsibility for training Iraqi police. Kahl told reporters earlier this week that the State Department will be in charge by next fall, and by then, the training should be a bit different.

Mr. KAHL: The State Department is not going to be doing the same things that the Defense Department has been doing. The Defense Department has really been aimed at trying to build the police from the bottom up, basic training, basic equipment. And our hope is to have that complete by the time the handover goes to the State Department so that INL can focus on the higher-end skill set.

KELEMEN: INL, the State Department's bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, has run training missions around the globe, but Iraq is a different story, according to Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Dr. DAN SERWER (U.S. Institute of Peace): This is a challenge orders of magnitude greater in size than the challenges the State Department would normally take on. This is an enormous challenge in terms of police training, in terms of protecting the embassy.

KELEMEN: Overseeing contractors will be another key challenge, he says. Security contractors will be needed not just at the embassy but also at the other diplomatic outposts that are being opened if diplomats are going to be able to get out of their buildings to do their jobs.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Corbin says there will be two consulates - one in the southern city of Basra and one in Erbil in the Kurdish north. There are also plans for temporary branch offices in Mosul and Kirkuk.

Mr. MICHAEL CORBIN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State): These are a three- to five-year presence. And we chose the Kurd-Arab fault line, as we like to call it, it's not what the Iraqis call it. But there are issues in Kirkuk and in Mosul that have not only to do with Arab-Kurd issues but also Iraq's minorities.

KELEMEN: Having diplomats try to resolve ethnic tensions is also not something completely new, according to Daniel Serwer, who served in the Balkans.

Dr. SERWER: I was called on to play a comparable role between Croats and Muslims during the Bosnian War, for example, but it's unusual that you find our diplomats intentionally inserted into an ethnic conflict to try to avoid escalation.

KELEMEN: Serwer says this transition from military- to civilian-led U.S. efforts to prevent further conflict in Iraq is only one aspect of the changes taking place in the country. He thinks the larger question is whether Iraqis themselves can consolidate their own transition to democracy. The country is still without a government more than five months after elections, as politicians wrangle over power sharing arrangements.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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