A huge new U.S. symbol in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Huge, expensive and dogged by controversy, the new U.S. Embassy compound nearing completion here epitomizes to many Iraqis the worst of the U.S. tenure in Iraq.

“It’s all for them, all of Iraq’s resources, water, electricity, security,” said Raid Kadhim Kareem, who has watched the buildings go up at a floodlighted site bristling with construction cranes from his post guarding an abandoned home on the other side of the Tigris River. “It’s as if it’s their country, and we are guests staying here.”

Despite its brash scale and nearly $600-million cost, the compound designed to accommodate more than 1,000 people is not big enough, and may not be safe enough if a major military pullout leaves the country engulfed in a heightened civil war, U.S. planners now say.


Militants have fired shells into the compound in the fortified Green Zone, where more than 85 rocket and mortar strikes have killed at least 16 people since February, according to a United Nations report last month. Five more people died in fierce barrages this month.

“Having the ‘heavily fortified Green Zone’ doesn’t matter one iota” when it comes to rocket and mortar attacks, said one senior military officer.

Like much U.S. planning in Iraq, the embassy was conceived nearly three years ago on rosy assumptions that stability was around the corner, and that the military effort would gradually draw down, leaving behind a vast array of civilian experts who would remain intimately engaged in Iraqi state-building. The result is what some analysts are describing as a $592-million anachronism.

“It really is sort of betwixt and between,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations who advises the Defense Department. “It’s bigger than it should be if you really expect Iraq to stabilize. It’s not as big as it needs to be to be the nerve center of an ongoing war effort.”

In a stunning security breach, architectural plans for the compound were briefly posted on the Internet in May.

“If the government of Iraq collapses and becomes transparently just one party in a civil war, you’ve got Ft. Apache in the middle of Indian country, but the Indians have mortars now,” Biddle said.

When completed in September, the compound will have the amenities of a small town, with six apartment buildings, a palm-fringed swimming pool, a gym, fast-food outlets, a barbershop and beauty salon, and a commissary stocked with the comforts of home. It is designed to be entirely self-sufficient, boasting its own power plant, wells and wastewater treatment system, according to a December 2005 report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Plans are also being drawn up to build short-term housing for several hundred additional people on a currently unused portion of the site, said Patrick F. Kennedy, the State Department’s management policy chief, who traveled to Iraq in May to review embassy staffing. How much the housing will add to the price tag has not been determined.

The project echoes another mega-embassy where diplomats, spies and army brass met for drinks and golf dates in a slice of America amid the escalating chaos in Somalia. That compound, which dwarfed even the Baghdad facility, was dismantled by looters after the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

The magnitude of the new compound, with nearly the same acreage as Vatican City, has convinced many Iraqis that the United States harbors long-term ambitions here, even as domestic pressure mounts to start bringing the troops home.

“They’re not leaving Iraq for a long time,” said Hashim Hamad Ali, another guard, who called the compound “a symbol of oppression and injustice.”

The compound was designed to accommodate career diplomats, representatives of almost every major U.S. government agency and their security personnel. But U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it had been assumed that the military presence would have diminished by now, so little room was included for them, which could make coordination between the civilian and military aspects of the U.S. mission difficult.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, and hundreds of headquarters staff work out of the current embassy.

Adding pressure on the available space is the unusually high number of non-Iraqi workers doing temporary jobs that would be handled by local nationals at other embassies, officials here said. All of those workers need to be housed.

“Just as the military is surging, the State Department is surging too,” said Kennedy of the State Department. Although he declined to discuss precise figures, he said space would be made available in the new compound for some, though not all, of the military headquarters staff. Most temporary foreign hires would also live and work there, though some would be assigned to other facilities depending on their functions.

“Now we do end up short on some housing,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy is currently housed in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace, also inside the 5-square-mile Green Zone. Employees work inside plywood cubicles in the cavernous marble halls and typically share digs in a vast trailer park that offers little protection against the near-daily assault of rockets and mortar rounds.

The decision to occupy what had been the center of Hussein’s oppressive rule was criticized at the time for the message it might convey about U.S. intentions in Iraq. In October 2004, the U.S.-appointed interim government transferred to the United States 104 acres of riverfront parkland for a new embassy with “hardened” accommodation.

The deal was part of a land swap in which the United States agreed to hand back three properties, including the palace, to the Iraqi government in return for the use of the new site and two properties in other cities, Kennedy said.

The Bush administration asked for more than $1 billion to build the new facility, which it said could be completed in two years. But Congress shaved the price tag by nearly half.

The lead builder is Kuwait-based First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co., which has been beset by accusations of deceptive and abusive labor practices on the project. The company denies the charges. Investigations by the State Department’s inspector general and his counterpart in the U.S. military in Iraq found no evidence of wrongdoing. The Justice Department refused to confirm or deny reports that it too was investigating the allegations.

The embassy has also complained about shoddy workmanship at a facility to house security guards, an issue that the State Department says it has raised with the builders and that should not delay completion of the project.

The deadline for completion, originally set for June, was delayed three months due to the complications of building in a war zone, Kennedy said.

“Convoys have been delayed from time to time. There have been some rockets that have fallen in the compound,” he said, without elaborating. “But we have every anticipation that come Sept. 1, the construction will be complete.”

Embassy staff will move into the compound after an inspection and certification process that is expected to take weeks.

Kennedy said that it made financial sense to combine living and working quarters.

Security measures will be extraordinary, even by standards imposed since the Al Qaeda terrorist network bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Structures will be reinforced to 2 1/2 times the standard with additional setbacks and perimeter clearance areas, five high-security entrances plus an emergency exit, according to the Senate report.

But in May, detailed architectural plans were briefly posted on the website of Berger Devine Yaeger Inc., an American firm contracted to design the facility. The company promptly removed the plans when contacted by the State Department on May 31. By then, the plans had been picked up by numerous other websites.

The walled site in the middle of Baghdad is also within easy range of Sunni and Shiite Muslim militants, whose attacks on the Green Zone are becoming more frequent and deadly. The U.S. military refuses to provide figures on the strikes, saying it would aid the assailants.

The American Foreign Service Assn., the professional body representing State Department employees, questions why the Bush administration is sending more civilians into a deteriorating war zone, when they are only rarely permitted to interact with Iraqis outside the Green Zone -- an essential part of their job.

“The general risk is in an order of magnitude greater than it would take to close any other embassy in the world,” said Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, a former president of the association.

Times staff writers Louise Roug and Said Rifai, along with researchers John Jackson and Robin Cochran in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.