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State Department to increase number of U.S. diplomats in Iraq

WASHINGTON—After weeks of agonizing over security conditions, the State Department has decided to nearly double, to 110, the number of U.S. diplomats in Iraq, department officials said Tuesday.

The contingent, when in place at the end of the year, will represent one of the largest U.S. diplomatic presences overseas and will include a large number of the department's 402 Arabic speakers.

The added staff will give the Iraq reconstruction effort more of a civilian character, although the Pentagon will remain in charge overall. The diplomats are expected to play a key role in President Bush's new strategy of accelerating arrangements for Iraqi self-rule, with sovereignty to be handed over to an interim Iraqi parliament by June 30.

Most of the diplomats are expected to work with Iraqi ministries to help build a post-Saddam government and write regulations on everything from telecommunications policy to antitrust law.

Some State Department officers already serve in key Iraq posts, including top spots in the Coalition Provisional Authority led by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.

But the expanded deployment has been on hold for weeks as department officials weighed the security risks. U.S. diplomats have been killed in terrorist attacks in recent years in Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere.

Diplomats serving in Iraq will be eligible for an 80 percent salary bonus, half of it in danger pay and half for serving in a "hardship" post, said the officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision hasn't been announced yet.

The decision to move forward follows an assessment trip to Iraq earlier this month by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

"We have been trying very hard to expand the number of State Department people" in Iraq, a senior official said Tuesday. Armitage has "made a big point" of pushing the issue since his return, the official said.

There are about 65 State Department employees in Iraq.

Two other top officials, Undersecretary of State for Management Grant Green and Francis X. Taylor, the head of diplomatic security, left for Iraq late last week to finalize arrangements.

The decision also coincides with a push by the United States for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to name a top envoy to Iraq and return international staff to Baghdad. The staff was withdrawn after the Aug. 19 bombing at the U.N. compound that killed Annan's special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others.

Annan expressed caution Monday about a quick return of U.N. staff.

Bush gave primary responsibility for the Iraq postwar effort to the Pentagon. Civilians in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office ignored an intensive State Department-led planning effort and blocked several department Iraq experts from going to Baghdad.

Now, Bremer has the final say over who joins his staff, one official said.

Aides to Secretary of State Colin Powell said that several months ago he put out a call for his department's Arabic speakers to volunteer for temporary Iraq duty. Powell warned that he would order individuals to Baghdad if enough did not sign up.

In the end, there were almost 250 volunteers, officials said.

The United States will not have an embassy in Baghdad until next summer at the earliest, when Iraqis regain sovereignty and Bremer departs.

One candidate for U.S. ambassador is Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.