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Personnel Cuts Leave USAID With Skeleton Crew to Monitor Nearly $1 Billion of Aid Programs in Iraq

An eleventh-hour drawdown of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Iraq is leaving a skeleton crew of full-time American aid officials, in addition to locally hired staff, to monitor nearly $1 billion worth of foreign aid programs, current and former officials said.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo moved forward with plans to withdraw dozens of diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, officials and congressional aides said, a preemptive safety measure amid potential security threats tied to the one-year anniversary of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian military commander last January. 

The decision roughly halved both the number of U.S. diplomats and also that of full-time U.S. foreign aid officials at the embassy, current and former officials as well as congressional aides familiar with the matter said. The move, they said, will leave only four full-time U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) staffers in place, in addition to locally hired employees, at the embassy to monitor hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars’ worth of foreign aid programs.

Former officials and humanitarian workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it would be difficult, if not impossible, for such a limited staff to ensure so much aid funding is properly implemented without mismanagement or graft. While some described the decision as quickly reversible, it comes amid a broader, last-minute drawdown of military and diplomatic personnel from Iraq in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency that some in Congress fear could undermine Iraq’s stability and open a vacuum for Iran and its proxies to gain even more influence in the country. 

“If Iran wants us out of Iraq and we are leaving under pressure, we are giving them just what they want,” said a Senate aide familiar with the matter.

The drawdown also reflected mounting frustration in Congress over the administration’s handling of the Middle East. Members and staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee had been requesting briefings on staffing levels at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad since September and October. Administration officials did not inform Congress about the decision before the news was published in advance, in stories from Politico and the Washington Post, according to several congressional aides familiar with the matter. 

 Acting USAID spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala would not comment on staff numbers, citing security concerns, but said that the agency “continually adjusts its posture at Embassies and Consulates throughout the world” depending on the mission, local security, and holidays. 

Jhunjhunwala said the relocation of USAID staff would not impact local Iraqi employees, who are on telework during the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency has also brought in third-party monitors on contract to attempt to ensure accountability for its projects. “The proper oversight of U.S. taxpayer funds spent on foreign development is paramount to [USAID],” she added. 

A State Department spokesperson also declined to comment specifically on the movement of staff and did not address questions on the criticisms from Capitol Hill. The spokesperson said that ensuring the safety and security of U.S. citizens, government personnel, and facilities “remains our highest priority.” The spokesperson added that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, remains in Iraq and the embassy in Baghdad continues to operate.