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Lawmakers Raise Questions About State Department's Future Role in Iraq

  • Lisa Ferdinando

The U.S. military is to exit from Iraq by the end of 2011, leaving the State Department with many new complex responsibilities. Our correspondent reports from Capitol Hill on the concerns about the diplomatic agency taking on jobs that have been primarily handled by the military.

U.S. lawmakers in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform expressed concern about the waste and fraud already known to be rampant in contracting in Iraq, and whether the State Department is ready to handle the new duties, including food services, the enhanced security needed for Iraq, and retrieving injured or dead personnel.

Michael Thibault, the co-chairman of the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting, says the exit of the American troops will mean that the State Department will need 6,000 to 7,000 contractors for security needs alone.

He said the future of Iraq is uncertain and the country remains a dangerous place. He listed a number of challenges to the panel, including that the embassy will no longer have the swift, sophisticated response from the U.S. military when rockets or mortars are fired at the diplomatic compound.

"Enemy insurgents will be delighted when they learn and experience that they will not be immediately targeted and brought under fire by the military," said Thibault. "Where our enemies worked very hard to launch a single rocket, there'll be little reason to not launch entire batteries of rockets. There will be no military consequences for them."

Committee chairman, New York Democrat Edolphus Towns, expressed concern about the new role of the State Department.

"The size and complexity of State's new role in Iraq is unprecedented," said Edolphus Towns. "Numerous important issues appear to be unresolved. The State Department will take over many functions that are inherently military for which State has little or no expertise."

He said efforts to move forward are also complicated by Iraq not having a strong government.

U.S. lawmakers also expressed concern that the increase in contracts creates more opportunities for waste and fraud. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, said reform is needed in how contracts are handled.

He said his office has identified waste and "egregious examples of fraud" over the last six years, including $40 million toward a partially built prison north of Baghdad, a now abandoned project.

"Five billion dollars we've estimated that has been wasted overall in the Iraq reconstruction enterprise," said Bowen.

The top Republican on the panel, California Congressman Darrell Issa, called for the duties that have been handled by the United States to continue to be the work of the government.

"After seven years in Iraq and a declared mission accomplished twice, we have to make sure that the powers that remain [in the country] remain with the assets they need and appropriately when inherently governmental, use governmental assets," said Issa.

Co-chairman of the Commission on Wartime Contracting Thibault says the Defense Department has not made a decision yet on a formal request for assistance, saying that leaves the State Department little time and makes it needlessly plan a two track strategy for Iraq, one that assumes the request is approved and the other that does not.