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In Iraq, can State Department pick up where US military leaves off?

US military wrestles with sheer size of shutting down operations in Iraq by next December – and handing off key security jobs to the State Department, which is staffing up to handle them.

This file photo shows a private security guard standing at the front entrance of the US Embassy building in in Baghdad's Green Zone.

Scott Nelson/AFP/Pool/Newscom

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As remaining US forces prepare to pack up and leave Iraq in the year ahead, the Pentagon is wrestling with the sheer size of shutting down operations – and the risks of handing over key security jobs that were once handled exclusively by the US military.

In little-noticed testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, lawmakers, too, warned that the test in Iraq is now “to ensure that a strategic defeat does not spring from [the] hard-fought tactical victory” of US forces.

With US military operations in Iraq set to end in December 2011, the challenges America faces will be considerable, say senior officials, who add that it will be “at least five more years” before Iraq “is truly self-reliant.”

For starters, the State Department will take charge of some highly complex military operations, often with the aid of private contractors. This will include everything from operating early-warning radar systems that alert personnel to incoming rocket fire, to handling unexploded munitions that land inside US bases. It will now also be charged with running certain unmanned drones and recovering broken-down vehicles.

And while the State Department has long taken the lead in training Iraqi police, this job is expected to get more complicated, since the police must take over more operations as US troops depart. This is happening at the same time that the State Department will be dramatically expanding its diplomatic presence in Iraq.

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