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U.S. plans cuts in Iraq personnel, eyes Syria envoy as next ambassador

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Then Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq in April 7, 2011. Amb. …

Just over a month after the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Iraq, the United States plans to sharply cut the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel and contractors in the country. The move comes as Yahoo News has learned that the recently withdrawn U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, is being considered to succeed Jim Jeffrey as the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

Also on the short list are Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Barbara Leaf, the Iraqi and American sources said. Leaf formerly headed the Provincial Reconstruction Team in the southern Iraqi city of Basrah.

The State Department announced Monday that it is withdrawing Ford and other U.S. government personnel from Syria and suspending operations of the U.S. Embassy in Syria amid worsening violence there. While the State Department said Ford would remain ambassador to Syria and would continue to meet with Syrian democracy activists abroad, one American and two Iraqi sources told Yahoo News that the Obama administration is considering tapping Ford as Washington's next envoy to Iraq--overseeing the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

Ford, a former deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq and fluent Arabic speaker, did not respond to a query from Yahoo News. Feltman, traveling in Morocco, also did not respond to a query.

Jeffrey is currently in Washington for meetings at the State Department. His planned departure from the Iraq envoy job was first reported by the New York Times' Tim Arango Tuesday.

American officials described plans to cut the 16,000 US personnel and contractors in Iraq by as much as half as a normal cost-saving measure. (The U.S. currently has about 2,000 diplomats in Iraq and 16,000 personnel including contractors posted to the country, the Times said.)

But regional diplomats tell Yahoo News the United States is also under pressure from Iraqi Shiite leaders to reduce the American presence in the country.

"This is what's happening," one regional diplomat told Yahoo News Tuesday on condition of anonymity. "First the U.S. gets the troops out. Then [the Iraqi Shiite] Sadrists say publicly, 'what kind of withdrawal is this, the Americans still have 16,000 diplomats in the country.' So first they force the military out. Now the anti-American elements force the diplomats out. This is what it is."

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