The State Department plans to open four diplomatic offices outside Baghdad by the end of 2011, when all U.S. military troops are scheduled to leave Iraq. Three of the offices will be in the north, where tensions between Arabs and Kurds over oil and territory are likely to last far longer than the current impasse in forming a new Iraqi government.
"Iraq is not a war. Iraq is a country," outgoing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said during one of several valedictories in Washington this week. Noting a mutual desire for a "longer term, special relationship with Iraq," he said, "there will be a lot to do for our diplomats there."
The last U.S. combat brigade left Iraq late Wednesday. Under the new era, called Operation New Dawn, the 50,000 U.S. troops left in Iraq will switch their focus to providing security for American civilians, training Iraqi security forces and partnering with Iraqis in counterinsurgency operations. Most will be deployed along the Arab-Kurdish fault line in the north.
Meanwhile, State Department officials hope they can turn their attention to more mundane matters, such as fostering trade relations and administering student exchange programs.
"Our commitment in Iraq is changing," President Barack Obama said, "from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."
James Jeffrey, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday. He presented his diplomatic credentials hours later to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
While a senior Iraqi army officer recently said the country won't be able to defend itself until 2020, U.S. officials are insisting that diplomats, not soldiers, are now on the front line in Iraq. This week, State Department officials announced plans to open four new outposts by the fall of 2011:
-- Permanent consulates will be established in the southern city of Basra and in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan in the north, at a cost of about $1.5 billion. The Basra office is near southern Iraq's oil fields and the country's only port, Umm Qasr, and will focus on helping U.S. companies set up operations there. Diplomats in Erbil will work on soothing Arab-Kurdish tensions that threaten the long-term stability of Iraq, as well as on Turkish-Kurdish relations.
-- Embassy branch offices will be built in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk and in Mosul, where insurgent violence continues unabated. The temporary offices will be open for three to five years and will focus on Arab-Kurd relations as well as issues involving Christians and other minorities.
"We will have a footprint where we have the right people in the right place, commensurate and consistent with our country's objectives," Hill said.
China, Mexico, France and a few other large countries have more U.S. diplomatic offices on their soil, but most countries in the Middle East have a single U.S. embassy.
"Consulates are an extremely important platform for U.S. interests," said Michael Corbin, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq. "We're going to have different interests in these consulates but they serve as platforms for us to apply all the tools of a diplomatic presence."
Not that the U.S. has kept a low profile up to now. After nearly six years ensconced in Saddam Hussein's opulent Republican Palace, U.S. diplomats and military officials moved into a new embassy in Baghdad in January 2009. As a symbol of American power, it was just a shade more subtle than Saddam's place.
Visible from space, bigger than the Vatican and 10 times larger than any other U.S. embassy, the diplomatic compound spreads across 104 acres and 21 buildings and includes a movie theater, retail shops, restaurants, schools and a fire station. Iraqis still struggle with constant blackouts but inside the embassy compound power, water treatment, sewage treatment and telecommunications facilities offer self-sufficiency for more than 1,000 diplomats stationed there.
Still a Dangerous Place
It wasn't too long ago that the State Department had to order diplomats to Iraq in the largest forced assignment since the Vietnam War. Career officers revolted over a choice between working in a war zone or losing their job and the plan was eventually dropped after enough volunteers stepped forward.
Security has improved. Yet as this week's suicide bombing demonstrated, Iraq remains a dangerous place.
The cost of providing security through diplomatic security service officers and private contractors is "mind-boggling," Corbin said. Original plans called for five permanent consulates in Iraq but they were scaled down to two because of costs, which includes more than doubling the number of private security guards to about 7,000.
The U.S. mission "will be substantially larger than it would be in an ordinary country of Iraq's size and importance," said Daniel Serwer, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "There aren't many, if any, embassies that run helicopter fleets."
Hill said there "are a lot of heavy costs" associated with leaving the "military cocoon." For instance, provincial civilian-military teams that typically traveled in heavily armored MRAPs are being replaced by all-civilian teams that will get around the same way until it is safe enough to switch to SUVs.
Besides security, more staff will be needed to manage reconstruction and other assistance programs in what Corbin said may be the biggest postwar transition since World War II.
"We had an election without the formation of a government, episodes of violence. It's important for the United States to have diplomatic and political contacts with all the players," said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who dealt with management and staffing issues during a 21-year foreign service career. "We've got to be out there in the local communities with the tribal chiefs, dispersed throughout the country, so we can try to contribute to a stable political outcome."
To pay for the ramped-up presence in Iraq, the State Department will need to convince Congress that spending more money on diplomacy is cheap compared to the price tag for military operations. In defending the department's 2011 budget proposal, former Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew said that the military draw-down would save $15 billion from the Pentagon's budget, while State was asking for a mere $2 billion increase for Iraq.
Future spending in Iraq should be viewed in the "context of a trillion-dollar commitment there that our country has made in this endeavor and all of the sacrifices, obviously, in the 4,300 killed, the thousands wounded," said Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East affairs. "The overall cost to the taxpayer will be coming down pretty dramatically over the next couple of years, but the mission is not complete yet. And that's why we continue to go to ask the Congress for money, a higher percentage of which will need to go to the State Department."
"If we don't put the resources into the civilian side we're taking a great risk that things work out on their own," said Volker, who predicts that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul may someday surpass the one in Baghdad.