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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Rapid Personnel Shifts Hinder U.S. Efforts to Rebuild Iraq

November 17, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The rapid turnover of American officials in Iraq has slowed efforts to rebuild the country, disrupted key relationships with Iraqis and led to frequent and abrupt shifts in U.S. policy, current and former government officials say.

Between July and September, all six U.S. agencies involved in the reconstruction effort lost all or some of their senior staff, according to an auditor appointed by Congress. Also, diplomats and military leaders have been rotated in and out of the strife-torn nation at swift intervals, complicating the U.S. effort, critics say.

Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, told Congress in his audit report last month that the turnover of top U.S. officials had resulted in "periods of turbulent uncertainty and stagnating progress, as new leaders realign their organizations to their own vision."

The Pentagon's policy of rotating top military commanders in Iraq differs from earlier American wars, critics note, when the most talented generals stayed for the conflict's duration or until the president wanted a change.

The government shifts officials quickly in large part because of concern about the dangers of the mission and the strains they put on workers.

But the result is "institutional amnesia," said Michael Rubin, a former political advisor to the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, which governed Iraq for more than a year after the U.S. invasion. "It undercuts us tremendously."

One example, critics say, was the unwelcome surprise federal auditors got this year when they sat down to examine more than $184 million in Iraq reconstruction contracts.

Expecting detailed records, they found instead that for 10 of 54 contracts, there were no papers at all and not even a hint as to how much the government had paid the contractors. The reason, the auditors discovered, was that the U.S. officials overseeing the work had left Iraq in such haste after four months of temporary duty that they had taken all the data with them in their laptop computers -- and in some cases, had erased the information.

When nonmilitary American officials began entering postinvasion Iraq in the spring of 2003, they usually signed up for tours that lasted three months or less. Several U.S. agencies have extended the length of tours since then, with the State Department seeking to make one year the standard for all civilian personnel.

In part because of the time needed to prepare for a tour, even civilian officials committed for one year often remain in Iraq for substantially less. Among military personnel, tours range from four months for the Air Force to one year for Army personnel.

Over the last 2 1/2 years, the American leadership teams in Iraq have turned over almost completely four times. The initial group was replaced after one month -- in May 2003 -- by J. Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA. In June 2004, he was supplanted by U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte.

Negroponte served nine months, returning to Washington in March to become the national intelligence director. His successor, Zalmay Khalilzad, did not assume his duties full time until August.

A senior U.S. official acknowledged that "if you kept people there longer, you'd build up more expertise, more knowledge and better rapport with the Iraqis."

But the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the topic, said it was unrealistic to expect U.S. officials to stay in Iraq longer than a year when their work environment is more dangerous than any that diplomats have ever faced, including Saigon during the Vietnam War.

The protected Green Zone of Baghdad, where U.S. officials work, was once bombarded every day for three months, he said, and remains a target for insurgents. "You cannot take a 50-year-old, or a 30-year-old, and subject them to that kind of work for much more than a year, under those stresses, without creating a serious burnout," the official said.

Yet many U.S. officials who served in Iraq acknowledge privately that it took them several months, and in some cases a year, to become proficient in their jobs.

The State Department has tapped veteran Middle East hands for the top few embassy jobs. But because of the reluctance among many diplomats to face Iraq's perils, the remainder are filled disproportionately by junior foreign service officers without Arabic language training or regional background.

A former top CPA official recalled how the turnover of U.S. personnel hurt the Americans' ability to track political developments.

During the CPA era, a U.S. official had been assigned to keep close contact with Adel Abdul Mehdi, who is now Iraq's vice president and was then its finance minister. Mehdi, a leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an influential Shiite political party, had been an important source of information on the political currents within the country's largest religious group.

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