WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after planning began, a top-priority U.S. effort to bolster weak governments in Iraq's heartland remains barely off the ground as officials struggle to provide security and staff for the dangerous mission.
Bush administration officials say that by sending teams of American and allied civilian and military aides to Iraq's 18 provinces they can help build up still-skeletal local governments, improve public services and strengthen a fragile national government that has often been unable to exert influence beyond the U.S. protected Green Zone in Baghdad.
But U.S. officials have been able to field only three of the provincial reconstruction teams in the effort, inaugurated with fanfare last fall by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Although officials say others will soon get underway, arrangements for their security and staffing remain incomplete.
And House lawmakers, in an Appropriations Committee report last month, said they remained concerned about a concept they said showed mixed results in Afghanistan. The appropriators ordered the administration to provide additional detailed reports before spending any of the $622 million in recommended funding for this fiscal year.
A major complication has been differences between the State Department and the Pentagon on the crucial issue of providing security for the mission.
Pentagon officials have complained to Congress for more than two years that Iraq's progress has been held back by insufficient numbers of U.S. civilian officials in the heartland, and have urged the State Department to put more "wingtips on the ground." Yet Pentagon officials have been reluctant to assign U.S. troops to provide security for the program, arguing that they don't want to shift troops to a new assignment when they are spread thin and weighing a reduction in their overall presence in Iraq.
In a recent shift, U.S. officials say they now expect that the majority of the teams -- 10 of 18 -- will be led by allied countries or Iraqis rather than the Americans who devised the program. But a number of allied governments say that though they are considering the proposals, they have made no final decision to sign on.
The program has strong backing from Rice and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who launched a similar program while he was Washington's envoy to Afghanistan. He began planning the Iraqi effort soon after he was named to the Baghdad post last April. Top U.S. national security officials have met repeatedly to sort out their difficulties, and have recently reaffirmed their commitment to go ahead with it.
Yet officials offer differing accounts of where the program stands. The State Department says the Pentagon has agreed to provide security once civilian staffing is arranged. Defense officials say the issue is not resolved.
Daniel Speckhard, who heads reconstruction and governance at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, is optimistic about the program and says the schedule calls for more of the teams to be rolled out by midyear.
He said that the United States was about to open a team office in Baghdad and that others soon would be launched in the southern cities of Basra, by the British, and Nasiriya, by the Italians. However, Italian officials say no final decision has been made on that team.
U.S. allies have been receptive to proposals that they participate, Speckhard said, adding that he was confident that the governments would be able to field specialists, though it has been difficult to fill some jobs. U.S. officials expect total staffing to be as high as 1,800 -- 100 people for each of the 18 teams.
But Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, who oversees Iraq operations as chief of Central Command, told Congress last month that it remained be seen whether the security would be provided by the Pentagon, contractors or allied governments.
"The security of those [teams] needs to be looked at carefully, and we're trying to figure it out," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the burden "will primarily fall initially to allied forces." Abizaid also said that though the U.S. civilian agencies have fielded more experts to help build the government and economy, "it's still not sufficient to meet the needs.... We still haven't figured out how to get the right numbers of people in the field, and we need to figure that out."
A U.S. Defense official, who asked to remain unidentified because he was not authorized to speak on the issue, said in an interview last month that the Pentagon continued to strongly resist efforts to involve more U.S. troops.
The teams "are a good thing," the official said. "We have had great results with them in Afghanistan. But there are too many jobs to do, and not enough guys to go around."
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that putting the teams to work could be "the most decisive factor" in stabilizing Iraq.