WASHINGTON — The United States played down Wednesday plans to reduce its diplomatic footprint in Iraq, saying it would keep most programs open and denying a report that it would cut staff by 50 percent.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed officials, said the United States, in the wake of the departure of US combat troops in late 2011, planned to slash its 16,000-strong staff by up to half.
But Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Tom Nides said this was not the case and vowed that the United States would maintain a "robust diplomatic presence" in the country.
"Contrary to some of the news reports we are not reducing our operations by 50 percent," Nides said in a conference call with reporters. "Most of the programs that we are offering we will continue to offer."
Fleshing out State Department plans to "right-size" the diplomatic mission in Iraq, Nides did say they hoped to reduce the number of expensive foreign contractors in the coming months and employ more local Iraqis.
"My hope is that we'll conclude over a period of time that we can consolidate some of the locations and space," he said. "And that will allow us to rely more on local Iraqi contractors."
The cuts represent a major U-turn in planning by the State Department.
US Ambassador James Jeffrey less than a year ago outlined plans to boost the size of the embassy in preparation for the departure of troops and the expected growing influence of neighboring Iran.
President Barack Obama, an opponent of the controversial 2003 invasion that ousted strongman Saddam Hussein, removed the last US troops at the end of last year after Iraq did not agree to plans to keep a residual force.
The New York Times said US diplomats have since been facing lengthy delays in approval for visas and have been struggling to arrange appointments with officials in Iraq, which has been mired in political crisis.
The newspaper also said that diplomats' living conditions had deteriorated without the troops, with the embassy running short of sugar for coffee and being forced to ration chicken wings enjoyed by some staff.