WASHINGTON — Can diplomats field their own army? The State Department is laying plans to do precisely that in Iraq, in an unprecedented experiment that U.S. officials and some nervous lawmakers say could be risky.
In little more than a year, State Department contractors in Iraq could be driving armored vehicles, flying aircraft, operating surveillance systems, even retrieving casualties if there are violent incidents and disposing of unexploded ordnance.
Under the terms of a 2008 status of forces agreement, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, but they'll leave behind a sizable American civilian presence, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, and five consulate-like "Enduring Presence Posts" in the Iraqi hinterlands.
Iraq remains a battle zone, and the American diplomats and other civilian government employees will need security. The U.S. military will be gone. Iraq's army and police, despite billions of dollars and years of American training, aren't yet capable of doing the job.
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The State Department, better known for negotiating treaties and delivering diplomatic notes, will have to fend for itself in what remains an active danger zone.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, flew to Washington this week for a conference with the State Department on how to transition Iraq from soldiers to diplomats.
He and Ambassador Christopher Hill "have built a joint plan to do this transition," Odierno said. "So we are now going to go through this (plan) and brief them on it and tell what they have to do to support this transition."
Odierno said that one of the chief responsibilities of the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq is to help facilitate that transfer.
The arrangement is "one more step in the blurring of the lines between military activities and State Department or diplomatic activities," said Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington research center. "This is no longer (just) the foreign service officer standing in the canape line, and the military out in the field."
"The State Department is trying to become increasingly expeditionary," he said.
With public attention riveted on the war in Afghanistan, the coming transition of the U.S. mission in Iraq has gotten relatively little notice by the news media. American troops are pulling out of the country at an accelerating rate to meet President Barack Obama's interim ceiling of 50,000 noncombat troops remaining in Iraq by the end of next month.
The stakes, however, could be enormous. The Obama administration has promised Iraqis that the United States won't abandon their country when American troops leave. If it can't keep that promise, U.S. influence in the unstable region could dissipate, despite a seven-year war that's cost more than $700 billion and the lives of at least 4,400 U.S. troops.
Already, however, the State Department's requests to the Pentagon for Black Hawk helicopters; 50 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles; fuel trucks; high-tech surveillance systems; and other military gear has encountered flak on Capitol Hill.
Contractors are to operate most of the equipment, and past controversies that involved Pentagon and State Department contractors, including the company formerly known as Blackwater, have left some lawmakers leery.
"The fact that we're transitioning from one poorly managed contracting effort to another part of the federal government that has not excelled at this function either is not particularly comforting," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
"It's one thing" for contractors to be "peeling potatoes" and driving trucks, McCaskill told McClatchy. "It's another thing for them to be deploying MRAPs and Black Hawk helicopters."
"I know there's a lot of bad choices here," the senator said, adding that she'd choose using the U.S. military to protect diplomats in Iraq. "That's a resource issue."
A report July 12 by the bipartisan legislative Commission on Wartime Contracting said that the number of State Department security contractors would more than double, from 2,700 to between 6,000 and 7,000, under current plans.
In contrast to that estimate, however, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy told McClatchy this week that the total number of U.S. civilians and contract personnel in Iraq after December 2011 would be only 4,000 to 5,000.
"Particularly troubling," the bipartisan commission's report said, "is the fact that the State Department has not persuaded congressional appropriators of the need for significant new resources to perform its mission in Iraq."
"We have to make the case to them. We hope that people recognize the importance of follow-through here," a senior administration official said, alluding to the long-term U.S. commitment to Iraq. Walking away from that "would be a terrible mistake," the official said. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk for the record.
State Department and White House officials, while acknowledging the peculiarity of having a large civilian U.S. government presence in a war zone without American troops on the ground, said that the transition — already under way, in some cases _would go smoothly.
Planning began in spring 2009, and the transition is being shepherded by teams in Washington and Baghdad that confer in weekly video teleconferences.
"This is a major endeavor, and it is without precedent, I believe," said Kennedy, the department's top management official, who's seen 37 years of management challenges.
"We've defined what we have to do. And now we have to define where we're going to do it and how we're going to do it," he said in an interview.
The State Department also will have to provide for its own basics, such as food, water and laundry, perhaps through existing Pentagon logistics contract known by the acronym LOGCAP.
Kennedy and other officials noted that the department has experience operating aircraft in war zones, through a long-standing, Florida-based aviation wing that's conducted counter-narcotics missions in Colombia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In the interview, Kennedy defended the decision to use contractors to operate military assets. The State Department doesn't have enough Diplomatic Security agents to do the job, and it makes little sense to undertake a mammoth hiring effort for a temporary need, he said.
"This is the kind of surge activity that it seems very, very logical to use contractors for," he said.
Critics say it would be more logical for the military to leave several thousand troops behind to protect government officials and property.
However, that would require renegotiating the U.S.-Iraqi status of forces agreement, a sensitive step. There's "no thought of that right now," the senior administration official said.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY