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Changes Afoot to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad

While much of the national security establishment’s attention is understandably focused on how the Obama administration handles Afghanistan — both the increase in troop levels and the forthcoming strategy review — there are some interesting Iraq-related changes underway as well.

For starters, there’s about to be a rotation at top levels of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in the next few weeks. On the way out is Patricia Butenis, the deputy chief of mission, which is the second-highest position at the embassy, responsible for handling its day-to-day operations. Butenis will be replaced by Robert Ford, an Arabist who has deep experience as political counselor in Baghdad. Ford worked for two years as political counselor in Baghdad during the chaos of 2004 to 2006; left in 2007 to become ambassador to Algeria, where he had served for much of his career; but returned in the middle of 2007 to redress an embassy shortfall in experienced staff. The Arabic-speaking Ford represents a wealth of knowledge about post-Saddam Iraq that will come in handy for prospective Ambassador Chris Hill — though, it’s worth noting, Hill still hasn’t been officially announced as ambassador to Iraq — who doesn’t have any background in the Middle East. One Iraq expert I spoke with said Ford is a top-flight diplomat and knows a lot about Iraqi politics, but isn’t sure about his management skills.

Another job worth watching: Phyllis Powers is in charge of provincial affairs. Among other things, that means managing the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the hybrid military-diplomatic-development units that fan out around the country to help Iraqis build governing capacity. I think she’s staying on, but I’m not entirely sure. When I asked the State Department about Ford and Powers, a spokeswoman gave me this response: “Personnel rotations and adjustments are in keeping with normal Embassy staffing patterns. However, we do not comment on specific individual’s schedules.” In any event, this is a position to keep an eye on, since it’s unclear what the status of the PRTs will be in the Obama administration, or under the new ambassador.

Finally, the administration is holding its own Iraq strategy review, though it appears to be occurring within the context of what you might call the normal National Security Council process. Yesterday, for instance, there was a Deputies Committee meeting of the subcabinet heads of the relevant agencies to get a sense of how to conceive of the future contours of Iraq policy. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg was there, as was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, who’s also co-chairing the Afghanistan strategy review. The Iraq review, I understand, got underway a few days before the Afghanistan-Pakistan one did and will wrap up before its Central Asian counterpart.

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