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New U.S. Embassy a city inside Baghdad

The huge complex is in Iraq, but some say apart from it.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published September 30, 2007

Cranes dominate the skyline as construction continues on the new U.S. Embassy compound, a 21-building, $600-million project in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.
[Getty Images]

It's big. Big enough to accommodate 80 football fields.

It's expensive. More expensive than the entire 2008 construction budget for all 11 Florida universities.

And it's controversial. Although it's not even finished, it's already tainted by allegations of fraud and forced labor.

Yes, like the war itself, the new U.S. Embassy in Iraq is racking up costs and critics.

"Now, having said over and over again that we don't want to be seen as an occupying force in Iraq, we're building the largest embassy that we have in Baghdad," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., complained last spring. "And it just seems to grow and grow and grow."

Located in the heavily guarded Green Zone, the embassy sprawls over 104 acres and is a totally self-sufficient city within a city. While most Iraqis suffer from chronic shortages of electricity and clean drinking water, the complex has its own power plant and fresh water and sewage treatment facilities.

There are also more than 20 buildings, with office space for 1,000 and sleeping quarters for 619. Embassy personnel need never venture onto Baghdad's mean streets: The complex includes a shopping market, food court, movie theater, beauty salon, gym, swimming pool, tennis courts, a school and a social club.

"Fortress America," is how one expert describes it.

"Although the U.S. government regularly proclaims confidence in Iraq's democratic future, the United States has designed an embassy that conveys no confidence in Iraqis and little hope for their future," historian Jane Loeffler writes in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

"Instead, the United States has built a fortress capable of sustaining a massive, long-term presence in the face of continued violence."

The $592-million embassy -- with a cost 12 times that of the second largest, in Beijing -- is being built by First Kuwait General Trading and Contracting. The Kuwaiti company is under Justice Department investigation for alleged contract fraud on the embassy project. It also has been accused of agreeing to pay $200,000 in kickbacks in return for two unrelated Army contracts.

Meanwhile, Congress is scrutinizing First Kuwait's 's labor practices, reported to include low pay, horrible living conditions and failure to tell workers recruited from poor countries that they were going to Iraq.

The embassy is still scheduled to open any day, though Loeffler says she has been told "it's not finished, it's not ready and it needs more time and money."

In a phone interview, Loeffler didn't dispute the need for tight security in Baghdad. But she sees the Iraqi project as just one example of a disturbing trend in U.S. embassy construction worldwide -- places so isolated and impenetrable that they make it harder for the United States to develop good relations with host countries.

"I'm not trying to be naive about security because people are out to get us everywhere," says Loeffler, author of The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies. "The issue is, can we do our job when buildings are designed to exclude everyone?"

In decades past, U.S. embassies were conveniently located and had libraries, cultural centers and other meeting places where thousands of people -- including future leaders -- got their first, often positive introduction to America, Loeffler notes.

That began to change with the deadly 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon and a commission's recommendation that all future embassies be at least 100 feet from roads or other buildings. New embassies like the one in Jordan were built in more remote locations outside city centers.

After 230 died in the 1998 bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the State Department adopted a standardized design that has given many of the newest embassies -- including those in Afghanistan and Jamaica -- a cookie-cutter look that takes no account of local climate, architecture or varying security needs.

"The rationale is that it's efficient and fast because you can plop the same thing down everywhere," Loeffler says. "But the reality is that it can be very inefficient and even more costly to maintain."

Another expert says Iraq presented unique challenges in embassy design because the country has been in a state of war for years and is apt to be so for the indefinite future.

"The central dilemma in this whole undertaking is that you have to do real estate planning a long time out, and there are so many uncertainties about what Iraq is going to be like," says Stephen Biddle, an expert on national security policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As for the danger U.S. diplomats will become too isolated, "that could certainly happen if everybody is just sitting around in the embassy," Biddle says. "On the other hand, one would certainly hope that if the embassy is doing its business properly, it's pushing its diplomats out to make contact with Iraqis. And in some ways that's easier to do if you have a safe base."

Biddle says the embassy's nearly $600-million cost is not that outlandish given total U.S. spending in Iraq -- $450-billion so far and climbing.

Or to put $600-million into other contexts, it's $100-million more than the estimated cost of George W. Bush's presidential library, and $50-million more than what it took to renovate the Beau Rivage casino hotel in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. And $600-million is how much NASA spends every time the space shuttle goes up.

Still, $600-million buys a lot of comfort in a place where millions of people are living in such desperate circumstances, Loeffler says:

"If another country was in the United States and claimed not to be an occupying force and had everything I didn't have, it would certainly disturb me as a citizen."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at


By the numbers: The new U.S. Embassy

  • 104 The number of acres the complex covers. That is six times larger than the United Nations compound in New York City.
  • 15 The thickness in feet of the walls around the compound.
  • $592-million Budgeted cost of construction. The annual operating budget is estimated at $1.2-billion.
  • 21 Number of buildings in the complex. Beijing has eight.
  • 16,000 Square footage of the ambassador's residence.

Sources: U.S. State Department, Associated Press, Washington Post, USA Today, MSNBC

[Last modified September 30, 2007, 01:50:05]

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