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State Department: We are NOT cutting the Baghdad embassy by 50 percent

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides held an impromptu press briefing Wednesday specifically to refute a widely read New York Times story claiming that the 16,000-person U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would see its staffing slashed in half. "We had the largest transition since the Marshall Plan taking place as of January 1st, and I think ...

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides held an impromptu press briefing Wednesday specifically to refute a widely read New York Times story claiming that the 16,000-person U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would see its staffing slashed in half.

"We had the largest transition since the Marshall Plan taking place as of January 1st, and I think many folks thought that it was a difficult mission set and we -- I think arguably -- could suggest we've had a very successful mission. The military is now gone," said Nides.

"It's certainly still a complicated situation there, but to the credit of our security and our diplomats and our locally engaged employees -- knock on wood -- we're doing a better-than-fine job at accomplishing the goals that we set out."

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides held an impromptu press briefing Wednesday specifically to refute a widely read New York Times story claiming that the 16,000-person U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would see its staffing slashed in half.

"We had the largest transition since the Marshall Plan taking place as of January 1st, and I think many folks thought that it was a difficult mission set and we — I think arguably — could suggest we’ve had a very successful mission. The military is now gone," said Nides.

"It’s certainly still a complicated situation there, but to the credit of our security and our diplomats and our locally engaged employees — knock on wood — we’re doing a better-than-fine job at accomplishing the goals that we set out."

Nides said that there was always a plan to "right-size" the Baghdad embassy and shift to a "more normalized" embassy presence. But the focus of the review he has been working on "informally" for months has been mainly about switching from contractors to local hires and sourcing embassy goods from the local marketplace.

"This is what the Iraqis want, and quite frankly, that’s what we want because it’s cheaper. It’s more important to be part of the community," said Nides. "Contrary to some of the news reports, we are not reducing our operations by 50 percent… To be honest with you, I don’t know where the 50 percent number came from." (The Times reported the State Department was "preparing to slash by as much as half the enormous diplomatic presence it had planned for Iraq, a sharp sign of declining American influence in the country.")

Nides declined to say exactly how much of the embassy staff would be withdrawn but repeated several times that contractors are first on the chopping block, although there may also be some drawdown of diplomatic staff.

He held a conference call Wednesday morning with the Baghdad embassy staff to brief them on his ongoing review, which will play out over the next few months, he said. As for complaints by the embassy staff that the salad bar is not fully stocked and there aren’t enough chicken wings to go around, Nides said they should prepare to eat Iraqi food going forward.

"If I can get more food purchasing done in Iraq and not have to bring it in, that will dramatically decrease our dependency on contractors to do food service," he explained. (Masgouf, anyone?)

At Wednesday’s press briefing, AP reporter Matt Lee asked spokeswoman Victoria Nuland: "Did the subject of lettuce shipments and chicken wing rationing come up in the [Nides] conference call this morning?"

"I do not know the answer to that, Matt," Nuland replied.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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