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Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Iraq is one of the top recipients of American assistance, and the U.S. foreign aid agency manages more than $1 billion in projects there, including funding for Iraqi religious minorities pushed by Vice President Mike Pence. But increasingly, the agency doesn’t have people on the ground to make sure the money is being well-spent.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has been forced to cut nearly 80 percent of its non-Iraqi staff in Iraq in the last year, even as the agency funds large, ambitious and complex aid projects there. A critical government watchdog report released this week said USAID officials reported the cuts “have had significant adverse effects” on the oversight and management of grants.

As ProPublica detailed this month, Pence’s office has pressured USAID to support local groups representing Iraqi minorities, particularly Christians. The watchdog report released this week said, in the context of the staff reductions and uncertainty, overseeing local groups “is particularly challenging given that awards to local organizations require increased involvement.”

One small charity that recently received a USAID grant and primarily serves Christian Iraqis has no full-time paid staff and no experience with government grants.

Overall, the report notes that USAID now has no staff based permanently in Iraq to oversee $430 million in basic humanitarian aid, such as food, safe drinking water and medical services. USAID officials manage the funding remotely via phone calls, reports from implementers and temporary visits, the report said.

As a result, “staff are only able to engage in the bare minimum coordination” with the rest of the U.S. government, the Iraqi government and the international community, USAID staff told the inspector general.

In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered a partial evacuation of U.S. personnel in Iraq in response to concerns over threats from Iran. The ordered departure has been controversial, and diplomats have criticized what they view as a gutting of core diplomatic functions in Iraq.

That decision, combined with an earlier State Department move to shrink the USAID mission, reduced the agency’s non-Iraqi staff from 26 at the start of the 2019 fiscal year to six by this fall, the report said. Some of those officials relocated to Washington, while others transferred to Germany.

USAID, the State Department and Pence’s office did not respond to questions. In response to the prior ProPublica story, a USAID spokeswoman said local grants in Iraq follow all federal regulations and have empowered those groups to respond to “grassroots needs.”

The report, which covers the period between July 1 and Oct. 25, was jointly prepared by the inspectors general of USAID, the State Department and the Pentagon.

The watchdog report said the Pompeo-ordered departure had been extended through Nov. 9, citing reports of violence and threats to diplomatic personnel. In July, Foreign Policy reported that the lower staffing levels are being treated as permanent.

USAID manages $1.16 billion in assistance in Iraq, spanning development, humanitarian aid and stabilization efforts, according to the report.

That “large portfolio,” coupled with the staff reductions, “create uncertainty as to how programs will be overseen remotely,” the report said. “Uncertainty around staffing levels also raises questions about USAID’s continuing ability to effectively oversee its high-priority, high-risk portfolio.”

U.S. assistance in Iraq includes over $400 million for religious and ethnic minorities targeted by the militant group Islamic State. That has been a major priority for Pence, as well as for conservative Christian groups and vocal communities of Iraqi Christians.

A new component of that effort was announced by USAID last month: $4.1 million to six local Iraqi organizations. ProPublica previously found that political appointees played a significant role in the latest awards.

The awardees included two groups that had been rejected by career officials for separate grants in Iraq in 2018. One of the groups, the Shlama Foundation, is a small charity that primarily serves Christian Iraqis; it will receive $1 million over two years. It has no full-time paid staff and no experience with government grants, a Shlama board member, Ranna Abro, previously told ProPublica.

Shlama did not respond to a request for comment this week, but Abro said previously that it is capable of handling the work, and that USAID had “fully and completely reviewed our capacity and is releasing the funds in small, manageable amounts based on deliverable outcomes.”

USAID has exacting requirements for its funding, requiring groups to provide extensive background and financial information. Small organizations often are less equipped to fulfill those requirements and need particularly close oversight from agency officials, experts on foreign aid said.

The watchdog report addressed the latest awards to local Iraqi groups, and it said their structure “relies on in-country expertise from USAID personnel to train local organizations on the requirements of receiving U.S. funding.” It added: “According to USAID, this is particularly challenging given that awards to local organizations require increased involvement.”

The report also raised questions about the effectiveness of some of USAID’s efforts toward Christians and other minority groups in Iraq.

For instance, one major USAID goal in Iraq has been to encourage the return of Christians, Yazidis and other groups to their homes in northern Iraq, which they fled after Islamic State took over swaths of the country. Last year, USAID administrator Mark Green said the agency was “committed to creating the conditions so that these communities can return safely to their ancestral lands.”

But officials have acknowledged relatively modest returns on the effort thus far. In September, senior USAID official Hallam Ferguson said the returns of persecuted religious minority groups to their homes still “lag far behind” other displaced groups in Iraq.

“We are struggling against tectonic forces in Iraq,” including decades of government neglect and discriminatory policy, more than 15 years of sectarian strife and unchecked local armed groups, Ferguson said in testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

According to the watchdog report, USAID officials have said that obstacles in Iraq cannot be resolved without more diplomatic engagement, made far more difficult by Pompeo’s drawdown. The report cited disputes between local Iraqi political leaders that had allowed a “vacuum of governance” to develop in Sinjar, an area of Iraq that includes many religious minorities.

“The longer these barriers remain in place, the more significant the questions grow about the potential effectiveness of these assistance efforts,” the report said.

Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.