State Department pushes back on reports of plans to slash Iraq staff

AP file photo

The State Department is vociferously pushing back against what it called “funky” reports that the U.S. plans to cut the size of its diplomatic presence in Baghdad by as much as half because of security concerns and ongoing tensions with the increasingly authoritarian government.

“Contrary to some of the news reports, we are not reducing our operations by 50 percent,” Thomas Nides, deputy secretary of State for management and resources, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “But, quite frankly, I am hopeful that over the next few months we will be able to reduce our size by reducing our dependency on contractors.... We owe it to the taxpayers.”

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the U.S. was preparing to cut down the size and scope of the embassy in Baghdad -- where 16,000 diplomats and contractors are stationed -- by half because of security concerns and tussling with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.  Nides said he doesn’t know “where the 50 percent number came from, but it is what it is.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland blasted the “wild guesstimates” in a “couple of funky pieces” about the reductions in personnel. “To the degree to which there may be a reduction in the diplomatic personnel, it'll be modest,” she told reporters during a briefing on Wednesday.

The assessment of how to create a more “normalized embassy presence” since the last American troops pulled out of the country in December will continue well into this year, Nides said. Going contract by contract to determine what goods the U.S. can purchase locally -- as opposed to bringing them in from over the border -- will dramatically reduce dependency on contractors, he added.

Another way to trim expenses is to consolidate some of the locations and spaces the diplomatic presence actually needs, and rely more on local Iraqi contractors, Nides said. The number of security guards is “a total derivative” of the square footage they need to protect, he noted. 

A day earlier, Nuland dismissed the complaints featured in the Times article about how “life became more difficult” for the thousands of diplomats and contractors after the last American troops pulled out in December. After convoys were delayed at border crossings, the Times reported that “within days, the salad bar at the embassy dining hall ran low. Sometimes there was no sugar or Splenda for coffee. On chicken-wing night, wings were rationed at six per person.”

Nuland said on Tuesday she did not consider an insufficient amount of arugula at the salad bar to necessarily constitute a hardship in Iraq. “Frankly, I saw that story,” Nuland said, “and it looked like some, some whingeing that was inappropriate... on the part of embassy employees, with regard to the quality of the salad bar.”

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