BASRA, Iraq—The sprawling U.S. base near the international airport in this oil-rich southern city is a shadow of its former self. Thousands of troops have already departed, leaving dozens of trailers and buildings completely empty. The remaining American forces will depart in late December, turning control of the base over to the Iraqi military.
The upcoming troop withdrawal won't mean the U.S. presence here disappears, however. Instead, the number of Americans in Basra will actually increase significantly in the months ahead as the State Department dramatically expands its consulate here.
U.S. officials say the consulate will eventually employ more than 1,200 people, making it larger than most embassies. The bulk of its employees will be security contractors and civilian officials from the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, but a small number of military personnel will be stationed within the consulate as part of State's Office of Security Cooperation, which oversees weapons sales to Baghdad and security training.
The U.S. consulate in Erbil, a tranquil city in northern Iraq, will be even bigger. It functions as a joint consulate/Office of Security Cooperation facility, which means it will have the largest concentration of American troops other than the embassy in Baghdad. U.S. officials say the consulate there will eventually at least 1,400 people, including more than 100 troops.
The plan to station U.S. military personnel in the two consulates highlights the fact that regardless of the ongoing political debate over whether American troops should remain in Iraq past the December 31st deadline, the U.S. isn't going anywhere.
The current debate between Washington and Baghdad focuses on whether to leave 3,000-5,000 troops in Iraq. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad, by contrast, will soon employ more than 16,000 people across the country, though not all will be American citizens.
The ongoing expansion of the diplomatic facilities—including two smaller outposts in Mosul and Kirkuk—is deeply controversial in Washington, where many lawmakers have questioned whether it makes sense for the U.S. to devote such an enormous percentage of the State Department's total budget to one country.
A Jan. 31 report from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, for instance, estimated that the State Department will spend $25-$30 billion in Iraq over the next five years. The panel said that U.S. diplomatic operations in Iraq in fiscal year 2012 will spike to at least $3 billion, roughly a quarter of the State Department's global operations budget. Other State initiatives here - like the large and growing Office of Security Cooperation—will push the fiscal 2012 numbers even higher.
It's far from clear that Congress is willing to spend that kind of money on Iraq, given the war's deep unpopularity at home. Lawmakers slashed State's fiscal year 2011 budget request by almost 20 percent, to $2.1 billion from the $2.6 billion originally requested. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told The Huffington Post earlier this month that he doesn't "know why [Iraq] has to be one of our highest priorities."
"I think we've reached the point in Iraq where whatever we're spending money on, we're throwing good money after bad," he told the Web site.
On the ground in Iraq, however, the expansion has long since begun. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is already the largest U.S. diplomatic outpost in the world, housing more than 3,000 civilian officials, troops and contractors within its 104-acre compound in Baghdad's Green Zone. The embassy has 21 permanent buildings, but staffers have been frantically installing new trailers to provide temporary housing for the hundreds of additional American personnel who are expected to move into the compound as the U.S. military withdrawal accelerates.
Signs on the Subway sandwich shop at Sather Air Base, near Baghdad's airport, remind customers that the fast-food restaurant will close its doors November 1, just weeks before the base's last military personnel are slated to return home. U.S. officials say the small State Department complex located directly across the street from the Subway will remain open even after the troops leave.
Here in Basra, meanwhile, diplomats assigned to the consulate currently work out of a relatively small windowless beige building ringed by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. But the consulate will soon grow to encompass a nearby dining facility, a fast-food area featuring a Green Beans coffee shop and other restaurants, and a broad expanse of new housing. Contractors have already installed neat rows of cubicles into vacant parts of an adjacent military building. They'll soon be filled by diplomats from the second-largest consulate in the world.
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.