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A huge new U.S. symbol in Iraq

July 24, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — 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.

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