State Department Outlines Dramatic Scale-Down of U.S. Presence in Iraq

Critics say the move will open the door to increased Iranian influence and worsen Iraq’s slide into chaos.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Baghdad, Iraq.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with Joey Hood, the chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, upon arrival in Iraq on May 7. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department sent Congress this month detailed plans to dramatically and permanently reduce the number of U.S. diplomats in Iraq, a measure that critics say runs directly against the Trump administration’s stated goals of countering Iranian influence in the country and undercuts Washington’s efforts to stabilize the Iraqi government. 

Documents sent from the State Department to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and obtained by Foreign Policy shed new light on the department’s decision earlier this year to draw down the number of diplomats and other U.S. personnel in Iraq. 

The U.S. Mission in Iraq will reduce the number of staff at its embassy, diplomatic support center, and consulate in Erbil in Northern Iraq from 486 to 349, a 28 percent decrease, by the end of May 2020. The majority of the staff leave will come from the State Department, but other government agencies, including the Defense Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), will also cut the size of their staff at the embassy, as the document shows.

The Trump administration is slashing the size of the U.S. Embassy at a time of political upheaval in Iraq amid anti-government protests and as it works to fend off Iranian influence in the country. After over 15 years of military involvement in the country, the United States still has about 6,000 troops in Iraq following the military campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group, and it poured about $1.5 billion of aid into the country in 2018. 

The State Department, in the documents it sent to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch, an Idaho Republican, insists the new cut staffing levels “will allow Mission Iraq to still achieve its core objectives, and conduct adequate monitoring and oversight of programs.”

But critics have derided the move. “The administration apparently thinks that we can manage the volatile situation in Iraq with a skeleton crew of diplomats,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the top Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing Middle East issues, told Foreign Policy. “It may not be a coincidence that Iraq has unraveled since we started to draw down our presence at the embassy, and we need to find a way to reverse course—fast. If we don’t, I fear Iraq will continue to slide into crisis without a political solution and we will be in a worse-off position to defend our national security interests,” he said. 

Read the full document, sent to Risch from Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Mary Elizabeth Taylor, here:

Ensuring the safety of U.S. government personnel and U.S. citizens abroad is our highest priority, a State Department spokesman told Foreign Policy in response. Our Embassy in Baghdad and our Consulate in Erbil are open for business, and Ambassador [Matthew] Tueller and his team are on the ground engaging daily, the spokesman said.

Iraq is one of our most important strategic partners in the region, and we are committed to fully engaging with our Iraqi partners and the Iraqi people to support a united, democratic, federal, and prosperous Iraq, the spokesman added.

Risch declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Since the costly U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has expanded into a massive and sprawling complex with thousands of logisticians, contractors, and security personnel. Despite the size of the embassy and personnel, only a small proportion come from the State Department; an even smaller number still work on core diplomatic functions, including political and economic officers.

Those small numbers will be reduced further from levels before the departures ordered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as the documents show. The number of political officers in the embassy will go down by 30 percent, from 10 to 7 officers; the number of consular officers will go down 58 percent, from 12 to five, and officers focused on political and military affairs will go down 33 percent, from six to four. The Pentagon will also reduce its personnel posted at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad from 111 to 63, and USAID would cut 11 of its 19 positions. 

Others say diplomats already have difficulty carrying out their jobs given the tight security restrictions dictating when they can leave the embassy to engage with Iraqi officials. Reducing the number of officers working on core diplomatic functions, including political and economic officers, will make that job more difficult, said Barbara Leaf, a former ambassador and senior career diplomat who worked in Iraq. 

“It’s a twofold problem. They’re further reducing an already tiny staff, and then keeping them locked up in this security arrangement that makes it virtually impossible for anyone to feel our diplomatic influence,” Leaf said. 

In May, Pompeo ordered all nonemergency personnel from the U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq to withdraw from the country based on unspecified threats from Iran, the United States’ arch-rival in the region. In July, Foreign Policy reported that the department would make the emergency drawdown permanent. This document, not previously released, outlines where the department will make permanent cuts. 

Some inside the U.S. government have already sounded the alarm bells on the adverse impact reducing the number of nonmilitary U.S. officials in the country will have. A government watchdog report issued last month determined that the ordered departure for USAID personnel “had significant adverse effects on program planning, management, and oversight activities in Iraq,” where USAID manages over $1 billion in humanitarian assistance programs, as ProPublica reported.

Last year, the Trump administration closed the U.S. consulate in Basra, a southern Iraqi city in the country’s Shiite heartland. A top U.S. diplomat at the consulate, Timmy Davis, opposed the decision to close the consulate through formal dissent channels in the State Department before ultimately carrying out the order. 

Update, Dec. 17, 2019: This story was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesman.

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