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U.S. Faces Massive Task in Setting Up an Embassy

The State Department is trying to pull together hundreds of diplomats and experts to tackle the crucial and hazardous job of rebuilding Iraq.

June 20, 2004|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The government, scrambling to assemble one of the world's largest embassies amid the violence and chaos of Iraq, is grappling with problems in staffing, financing and security.

Since January, the State Department has been trying to build a team of hundreds of diplomats, as well as specialists from other agencies and support staff -- some pulled hastily from other overseas postings -- to help rebuild a nation in the midst of war.

Diplomatic experts doubt that the goal can be achieved smoothly, and congressional observers fear that the State Department lacks the ability to handle the job.

"In any other post, we would probably have shut the place down and taken our people out ... but we do not have the choice here. It is too important," said John Limbert, a former U.S. ambassador to Mauritania who served as a political officer in Iraq last year.

The State Department has made it clear to junior and mid-level foreign service officers that the mission in Baghdad is the administration's top foreign policy priority, and that their careers will be enhanced if they volunteer for one-year tours, sources said.

"Nobody is twisting anybody's arm," said a senior State Department official who spoke on condition that he not be identified. But he acknowledged that there were incentives to volunteer for hazardous duty.

In addition to being promised additional pay, "people are being told, 'Look, this is a career-enhancing move. You will learn new skills, you will come to the attention of people who will be able to help your career,' " the official said.

U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte is expected to present his credentials to the Iraqi interim government July 1, the day after L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, leaves town.

Although more than 130,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, the end of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority means that the military will no longer be in charge of the nation's political rebirth and physical reconstruction. The State Department, which found itself pushed to the sidelines on Iraq in the run-up to the war and in its aftermath, will take the lead in dealing with the new Iraqi government.

The White House is hoping that the transfer of authority will be a turning point in relations between the United States and Iraq. Administration officials have begun to talk of the "partnership" that they hope the U.S. and Iraq will build to defeat a deadly insurgency and prepare for elections.

Diplomats, who already have begun streaming into Baghdad, are also supposed to administer the largest U.S. aid program in the world and reverse the perception held by many in the Arab world that the United States intends to keep indefinite control of the oil-rich Islamic nation.

Their base of operations will be a makeshift embassy in Baghdad's heavily fortified, U.S.-controlled Green Zone, cobbled together from one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces and a collection of tents and trailers.

Negroponte has pulled ambassadors and senior diplomats from other key embassies and scoured the foreign service for Arabic speakers willing to serve yearlong tours in a post that requires them to leave their families behind.

The diplomats will constitute what Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, the State Department official in charge of setting up the embassy, has described as a diplomatic "dream team."

Some question whether the State Department will succeed in Iraq.

"It is, under the best of circumstances, difficult to pull that many people together," said former Ambassador Edward S. Walker Jr., who served as deputy chief of mission in Saudi Arabia and as ambassador to Egypt, and is now president of the Middle East Institute. "Under the circumstances in Baghdad, it will be a nightmare."

Walker said it would be hard for the diplomats to convince Iraqis that the Americans are not just continuing the occupation. The staff, which is expected to number more than 900, probably will find itself mostly cooped up inside the Green Zone because of security concerns and unable to mingle with ordinary Iraqis.

"It will be like in Lebanon during the civil war," Walker said. "The only person who could move outside the embassy then was the ambassador, with a tank in front and a tank in back."

The Bush administration needs the State Department to do a better job at reconstruction than the Pentagon has.

"It is absolutely critical," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that deals with the State Department. U.S. success in Iraq "is important in the whole war on terrorism."

"To fail in Iraq -- whether you favored going in or didn't -- to fail in Iraq now would be really very, very bad for the war on terrorism," he said. "The terrorists would be emboldened."

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) said lawmakers had not been reassured by testimony from senior State Department officials.

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