The withdrawal of the last American combat forces "doesn’t mean an end to our relationship with Iraq," a senior American diplomat said, but it means civilians from the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development are coming in to build a new relationship that "rests firmly on the foundation that the military has built."
Speaking Aug. 17 at a Center for New American Security event, Michael Corbin, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, said plans call for opening consulates and branch offices in Kirkuk and Mosul in the north, Erbil in the Kurdish region and Basra in the south.
"Consulates serve an important function" because they "provide a long-term presence." He added the State Department would be hiring up to 7,000 contractors to provide security for its facilities and to move foreign service officers and other U.S. government employees about the country.
"We have a security agreement" in place and "are looking at a strategic agreement" for the future" that would cover priorities from agriculture to education to health to economic development agreed to by both nations, he said.
Colin Kahl, deputy secretary of defense for the Middle East, said the remaining 50,000 American forces are shifting to "an advise and assist role." He said they would have four major missions: force protection for individuals and civilians working with the United Nations; training, equipping and advising Iraqi security forces; partnering with the Iraqis in counter-terrorism operations; "and continue the responsible drawdown" in which all American forces are to leave by the end of 2011.
"We surprised the Iraqis by living up to the [security] agreement" by first withdrawing from the cities, then removing combat forces from the country and expanding the training mission.
Although the security situation has changed for the better since 2006, Kahl said major challenges remain in defusing tensions between Arabs and Kurds and melding the largely Sunni "Sons of Iraq" forces into the nation’s security forces.
"A lot of credit should go to Iraqi security forces – the military and police. They are more capable and more professional. The Iraqi public has more confidence in their security forces," Kahl added.
He said despite recent suicide bombing attacks on military recruits and police, "Al Qaeda in Iraq is weaker than it has ever been. It is no longer an insurgency but now a terrorist network." Adding, "We also see this in the Shi’ia militia."
The immediate political problem for Iraq is forming a new national government, both said. Five months after the elections, the two largest Shi’ia blocs have been unable to reach a compromise on the shape of the government.
"All say they want an inclusive government," Corbin said. "We see serious compromise going on."