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Pompeo Seeks to Make Baghdad Embassy Pullout Permanent, Officials Say

The abrupt evacuation in May left hundreds of diplomats in limbo and too few in Iraq to handle Iran’s influence and other pressing issues, according to State Department sources.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boards a plane before departing from Baghdad during a brief visit to Iraq on May 7.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boards a plane before departing from Baghdad during a brief visit to Iraq on May 7. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered a partial evacuation of diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq amid escalating tensions with Iran. Now, several State Department officials say they are being told the drawdown in embassy staff will effectively become permanent, a move that could leave the U.S. Embassy short-staffed to undertake important tasks like countering Iran on the diplomatic front—and in the short-term has marooned hundreds of diplomats in the Washington area without an embassy to go back to.

A State Department spokesman said this characterization of the drawdown is “inaccurate.” He said: “No decision on permanent staffing levels have been made, but a review of staffing is in process.”

But three other State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the staffing levels at the Baghdad embassy reached after the evacuation in May are being treated as a de facto permanent cap on State Department personnel in Iraq.

“They’ve already quietly made the policy decision that they’re not sending these people back,” a senior State Department official familiar with internal deliberations told Foreign Policy. “But they’re not actually calling it a drawdown, they’re just saying they’re reviewing the ordered departure,” the official said. 

The embassy still has an estimated thousands of personnel in place, but only a small portion of staff at the embassy work directly on core diplomatic functions, including political officers, economic officers, and public diplomacy officers. The majority are contractors, security personnel, or officials from other federal agencies, including the intelligence community. After the partial evacuation, two officials told Foreign Policy, the embassy has less than 15 State Department officials left working directly on core diplomatic functions.

“We took a powerful functioning embassy that was keeping Iranian influence at bay, and created space for the U.S. to exert influence, and we gutted it,” said the senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Another State Department official, who has been impacted by the decision, said it felt like the State Department was “abandoning Iraq.”

Pompeo ordered the drawdown of nonemergency embassy personnel in mid-May following what the Trump administration called threats from Iran that put American personnel in Iraq at “substantial risk.” Among those evacuated were some 275 State Department personnel working under the chief of mission, two officials said.

The State Department spokesman did not confirm or deny the number of personnel remaining. It is State Department policy not to disclose staffing levels in an embassy for security reasons. 

When it was completed in 2009, the new $700 million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was the largest and priciest U.S. embassy in the world. The sprawling new compound spanned over 100 acres with housing for more than 1,000 personnel, and it served as a testament to how central Iraq was to U.S. foreign policy for nearly two decades.

That is changing, amid a wider debate within the Trump administration over how to wind down U.S. involvement in costly conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, even as tensions grow with Iran. The Trump administration has discussed plans to cut the number of U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the president’s longstanding pledge to extricate the United States from those conflicts and reposition the State Department to address other global priorites, such as growing competition with Russia and China.

When Pompeo announced his order for nonessential personnel to evacuate Iraq, he said, “we concluded given the escalating risk in the region that it made sense for us to get those nonessential personnel out of Iraq.”

Some U.S. lawmakers were initially skeptical of the Trump administration’s warnings about heightened threats from Iran and the embassy evacuation. Those lawmakers, primarily Democrats, said the Trump administration did not provide them with information on the heightened threat from Iran before the evacuation decision.

The State Department spokesman said the ongoing ordered departure is “based on the security situation” but declined to provide specifics. “Ensuring the safety of U.S. government personnel and U.S. citizens and security of our facilities are our highest priorities,” the spokesman said.

The secretary of state has the authority to evacuate embassy personnel on an emergency basis, a decision that is reviewed every 30 days for up to six months. Any permanent drawdown of an embassy requires congressional notification. 

The State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy say many of the personnel forced to evacuate are now effectively in limbo, some sitting in hotels or Airbnbs in the Washington area. 

Some officials who were nearing the end of their tour in Iraq when the order to evacuate came now have their next assignments.

Others, either those who just started their tour in Iraq or were about to go, are in limbo and are “effectively unemployed employees at this point,” as one State Department official put it.

“As with any ordered departure, when an employee is placed on such status they are given a temporary assignment,” the State Department spokesman said. “There are employees scheduled to depart for post this summer and at the moment they are in their appropriate training, in order to ensure that they are ready to proceed to post should/when ordered departure be lifted.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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