Kerry mulls special spending measure for State Dept.-led Iraq operations

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is mulling a special multiyear spending measure to fund State Department-led activities in Iraq.

“In the coming weeks, I will explore the possibility of a multiyear authorization package for Iraq that would include the operational costs of the mission, as well as our security and economic assistance programs,” Kerry said during a committee hearing today.

The possible authorization package would be separate from annual State Department spending legislation, Kerry told The Hill after the hearing. “You couldn’t cannibalize the ‘150 budget’ for this,” he added, referring to the State Department’s yearly foreign affairs budget.

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“It couldn't possibly be inside the regular budget," Kerry said during a brief interview. “It would have to be a creative approach.”

If he moves forward with the measure, Kerry said during the hearing he wants it to be a “road map to the American public so that our effort in Iraq might end better than it began.”

Kerry declined to discuss how large such a measure might be. 

But during the hearing, James Jeffery, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the panel he expects the State Department’s 2011 spending on Iraq to fall between $3 billion and $3.5 billion. As American officials hand more and more control to Iraqis, U.S. spending there “will come down,” Jeffery said.

Kerry said as the U.S. military exits Iraq, officials must strike a balance that includes “our civilian capacity, a financial commitment from Congress, a degree of U.S. military support and the backing of the Iraqi government.”

Without that mix, “we may face a difficult choice between scaling back the diplomatic missions or accepting a degree of physical risk that’s … normally unacceptable for our diplomats,” Kerry said.

Plans to remove all U.S. military forces from Iraq by the end of this year are on track, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of American forces in Iraq, told the committee.

When that happens, the job of securing U.S. facilities and personnel in Iraq will shift from American troops to private security contractors.

That coming shift has some lawmakers concerned, including Kerry, who said U.S. officials “have to be careful about replacing our military presence with a private mercenary force.”

As that shift takes place, “that will be a delicate balance,” the chairman said.

Several panel members questioned why U.S. funds are still being used for Iraqi reconstruction projects when that nation’s oil revenues are growing.

Jeffery said Iraq is paying all of its “capital investment” bills, and continues to take on more of the financial burden of such activities.

One significant need is a “major build out” of its main oil-exporting port, an upgrade Jeffery said could “double” its total amount of oil exports annually.

Kerry said he plans to look into just how much annually Iraqi officials are taking from oil revenue coffers and re-directing to pay back Washington for reconstruction and security projects.

Iraq’s security forces also need work, Austin said. Iraqi forces need to enhance their logistics and intelligence-gathering abilities, and will not start buying aircraft until 2013.

By the time the American military leaves at the end of this year, Iraqi security forces will be able to perform all necessary security functions inside their nation.

But they would not be able to defend the nation from an external attack, Austin said. And without any war planes, the Iraqi force will not be able to defend its own skies, he added.

The fledgling Iraqi force will have to continue acquiring combat equipment and picking up new training before they are ready for that, Austin said.