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Huge Embassy Keeps U.S. Presence In Iraq

Dec 17, 2011
Originally published on December 18, 2011 12:40 pm

As the final U.S. troops leave Iraq, they leave behind the largest U.S. Embassy in the world.

There will be about 16,000 people working for the State Department at the embassy in Baghdad and consulates elsewhere in Iraq.

At least 5,000 of those in Iraq will be private security contractors, and there are lots of questions about whether the State Department is ready to run such a big operation in such a volatile country.

At the State Department in Washington, Undersecretary for Management Pat Kennedy has been getting contracts and other logistics in order for the embassy.

"This is something, clearly, that the State Department has never done before," Kennedy says.

Large Support Network

The Defense Department is lending some people and military equipment, but it is the State Department that will be in charge of the imposing embassy in Baghdad and the consulates. Most of those 16,000 people will actually be contractors providing security and what Kennedy calls "life support."

"The core numbers of diplomats in Baghdad and ... in Basra, Kirkuk and Irbil are on a par with what you might find in another large U.S. Embassy in a Paris, a Tokyo or a Bangkok," says Kennedy.

The price tag for all of this will run about $3.5 billion a year. So far, Kennedy says, Congress has helped.

"They have provided us with funding in separate accounts," he says, "in order to ensure we can carry out our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan so it does not drain away resources for the other 165 or so countries that we have embassies in."

One of Kennedy's predecessors, Grant Green, says there are some big questions hanging over this mission.

"What is going to be the will of our country and our Congress to support our activities there in the out years?" Green says. "Once the troops are really gone completely, other than security cooperation folks, but once they are completely gone, this turns into just another diplomatic post. And until there are some tragic events there, I think it is off the radar screen."

Congressional Skepticism

Already, some in Congress are questioning the need for such a large diplomatic presence in Iraq. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and a key member of the Appropriations Committee, calls it a behemoth of an embassy that costs more than U.S. missions to key allies and trading partners.

"Just as it was a horrible mistake on the part of the United States to go to war in Iraq to begin with, the size of this embassy and the cost of supporting this embassy just continues that mistake," Leahy says.

If money dries up, the U.S. may have to cut back on consulates or personnel.

Green, who was on the commission that studied wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that could mean less oversight in a country where U.S. security contractors already have a terrible image for a deadly shooting in 2007, when Blackwater security guards killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad.

"Are they going to have enough oversight? Probably not, but they are going to have to do the best they can with what they've got," he says.

"It's just not on the security side," he continues. "We need people to oversee those life support contracts — the dining facilities and construction and delivery of water and fuel and food and all of those things that will be done by contractors. We may not lose lives if those contractors come up short, but we can certainly waste a lot of money.

Kennedy, the current undersecretary for management, says he thinks there will be enough oversight. And as for the size, he thinks it is worth it.

"The U.S.-Iraq relationship is incredibly important. This is a democracy in the Middle East," he says. "Is it perfect? No. A lot of people think our system isn't perfect either. But this is a major oil producer, a friend of the United States, a potential market for American goods and now, I think, a very important symbol in the Middle East of what democracy in the Middle East could be."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As U.S. troops leave Iraq, in their rearview mirror is the largest U.S. Embassy in the world. There will be about 16,000 people working for the State Department at the embassy in Baghdad and three consulates elsewhere in Iraq. At least 5,000 will be private security contractors.

And there are lots of questions about whether the State Department is ready to run such a big operation, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In his seventh-floor office at the State Department, undersecretary for management Patrick Kennedy has been getting contracts and other logistics in order for Iraq.

PATRICK KENNEDY: This is something clearly the State Department has never done before.

KELEMEN: The State Department will be in charge of thousands of people at the imposing embassy in Baghdad. Though the numbers are large, Kennedy says most will be contractors providing security and what he calls life support. And he thinks this will be manageable.

KENNEDY: The core numbers of diplomats in Baghdad and in our at our efforts in Basra, in Kirkuk, and in Irbil are on a par with what you might find in another large United States embassy, such as Cairo, a Paris, a Tokyo, or a Bangkok.

KELEMEN: The price tag for all of this will run about three and a half billion dollars a year. And so far, Kennedy says, Congress has helped.

KENNEDY: They have provided us with funding in separate accounts, in supplementals, in order to ensure that we are able to carry out our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it does not drain away resources for the other 165 or so countries that we have embassies in.

KELEMEN: But one of Kennedy's predecessors, Grant Green, is worried about the future for the State Department. He says there are some big questions hanging over this mission.

GRANT GREEN: What is going to be the will of our country and the Congress to support our activities there in the out-years? You know, once the troops are really gone completely, this turns into just another diplomatic post.

KELEMEN: One that Green says may be scratching for bits of change.

Already some in Congress are questioning the need for such a large diplomatic presence in Iraq. Senator Patrick Leahy, a key member of the Appropriations Committee, calls it a behemoth of an embassy that costs more than U.S. missions to key allies and trading partners.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: Just as it was a horrible mistake on the part of the United States to go to war in Iraq to begin with, the size of this embassy and the cost of supporting this embassy just continues that mistake.

KELEMEN: And if money dries up, the U.S. may have to scale back its operations and cut personnel. Grant Green, who was on the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, fears that could mean less oversight in a country where U.S. security contractors already have a terrible image, for a 2007 incident in Baghdad when Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqis.

GREEN: Are they going to have enough oversight? Probably not, but they're going to have to do the best they can with what they've got. It's just not on the security side, we need people to oversee those life support contracts - the dining facilities and construction, and delivery of water and fuel and food, and all of those things that will be done by contractors. We may not lose lives if those contractors come up short but we can certainly waste a lot of money.

KELEMEN: Back at the State Department, Kennedy, the current undersecretary for management, says there will be enough oversight. And as for the size, he says the U.S.-Iraq relationship is incredibly important.

KENNEDY: This is a major oil producer, a friend of the United States, a potential market for American goods and now and I think a very important symbol in the Middle East of what democracy in the Middle East can be.

KELEMEN: Iraq has been slow to give visas to some of the many contractors the State Department needs in the country. But Kennedy says the people he needs to have in place now are there.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.