One building that's been built on time and on budget in Iraq: America's fortress embassy
Ed Pilkington in New York
Monday May 21, 2007
A portion of the new US embassy under construction is seen from across the Tigris river in Baghdad, Iraq. Photograph: AP
When the idea of building a new US embassy in Baghdad was first mooted by the American administration in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, there seemed to be a grandiose logic to it.
The compound, by the side of the Tigris, would be a statement of President Bush's intent to expand democracy through the Middle East. Yesterday, however, the entire project was under fresh scrutiny as new details emerged of its cost and scale.
Rising from the dust of the city's Green Zone it is destined, at $592m (£300m), to become the biggest and most expensive US embassy on earth when it opens in September.
It will cover 104 acres (42 hectares) of land, about the size of the Vatican. It will include 27 separate buildings and house about 615 people behind bomb-proof walls. Most of the embassy staff will live in simple, if not quite monastic, accommodation in one-bedroom apartments.
The US ambassador, however, will enjoy a little more elbow room in a high-security home on the compound reported to fill 16,000 square feet (1,500 sq metres). His deputy will have to make do with a more modest 9,500 sq ft.
They will have a pool, gym and communal living areas, and the embassy will have its own power and water supplies.
But commentators and Iraq experts believe the project was flawed from its inception, and have raised concerns it will become an enormous, heavily targeted white elephant that will be an even greater liability if and when the Americans scale back their presence in Iraq.
"What you have is a situation in which they are building an embassy without really thinking about what its functions are," Edward Peck, a former American diplomat in Iraq, told AP.
"What kind of embassy is it when everybody lives inside and it's blast-proof, and people are running around with helmets and crouching behind sandbags?"
Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 about 1,000 US diplomatic and military staff have been using one of his former palaces as a make-shift embassy, which several observers have criticised as giving the regrettable impression that the Americans merely replaced Saddam's authoritarian rule with their own.
Joost Hildermann, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group, said of the new embassy: "This sends a really poor signal to Iraqis that the Americans are building such a huge compound in Baghdad. It does very little to assuage Iraqis who are angry that America is running the country, and not very well at that."
The need to make the compound secure is a top priority. The Green Zone - the fortified four square miles in which the Iraqi and American governments and other international officials operate - used to be relatively peaceful but in recent months has come under almost daily rocket and mortar fire. This month the US embassy ordered its people to wear flak jackets and helmets at all times when in the open after four foreign contractors were killed by a rocket landing beside the present embassy.
The multiple cranes surrounding the construction site of the new embassy have already attracted attacks from insurgents. Last week five contractors were wounded in a rocket assault.
Despite the peculiar pressures, the Bush administration says the embassy will open in September, and be fully staffed by the end of the year.
Already, however, there have been suggestions that the compound will not be large enough to house hundreds of diplomats and military personnel likely to remain in Iraq for some time. Scores of US officials are currently housed in trailers which are vulnerable to bombs landing on their roofs. According to a report by McClatchy News, staff members have complained about the dangers only to be told they must wait until the new embassy is ready to take them in.
Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraq at Queen Mary, University of London, has just come back from a month spent in Iraq, largely in the Green Zone. He thinks the Americans are unlikely to pull out of Iraq fully until the end of the next presidency at the earliest, and so the new embassy will serve its purpose for several years to come.
"A fortress-style embassy, with a huge staff, will remain in Baghdad until helicopters come to airlift the last man and woman from the roof," he said, adding his own advice to the architects of the building: "Include a large roof."
There is one added irony - the embassy is one of the few major projects the administration has undertaken in Iraq that is on schedule and within budget.