Global Policy Forum

Iraqis See Red As US Opens World's Biggest Embassy


By Howard LaFranchi

Christian Science Monitor
April 24, 2008

For the average American who will never see it, the new US Embassy in Baghdad may be little more than the Big Dig of the Tigris. Like the infamous Boston highway project, the embassy is a mammoth development that is overbudget, overdue, and casts a whiff of corruption. For many Iraqis, though, the sand-and-ochre-colored compound peering out across the city from a reedy stretch of riverfront within the fortified Green Zone is an unsettling symbol both of what they have become in the five years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and of what they have yet to achieve.

"It is a symbol of occupation for the Iraqi people, that is all," says Anouar, a Baghdad graduate student who thought it was risk enough to give her first name. "We see the size of this embassy and we think we will be part of the American plan for our country and our region for many, many years." The 104-acre, 21-building enclave – the largest US Embassy in the world, similar in size to Vatican City in Rome – is often described as a "castle" by Iraqis, but more in the sense of the forbidden and dominating than of the alluring and liberating.

"We all know this big yellow castle, but its main purpose, it seems, is the security of the Americans who will live there," says Sarah, a university sophomore who also declined to give her last name for reasons of personal safety. "I heard that no one else can ever reach it." Among the Iraqi elites who have suffered so much in the chaos of the post-Hussein period – the professors, doctors, architects, and artists – the impact of the new American giant is often expressed more symbolically but sometimes using the same terms.

Castles in the sand

"Saddam had his big castles; they symbolized his power and were places to be feared, and now we have the castle of the power that toppled him," says Abdul Jabbar Ahmed, a vice dean for political sciences at Baghdad University. "If I am the ambassador of the USA here I would say, 'Build something smaller that doesn't stand out so much, it's too important that we avoid these negative impressions.' "

Yet while the new embassy may be the largest in the world, it is not in its design and presence unlike others the US has built around the world in a burst of overseas construction since the bombings of US missions in the 1980s and '90s. Efforts to provide the 12,000 American diplomats working overseas a secure environment were redoubled following the 9/11 attacks. Designed according to what are called the "Inman standards" – the results of a 1985 commission on secure embassy construction headed by former National Security Agency head Bobby Inman – recent embassies have been built as fortified compounds away from population centers and surrounded by high walls.

In the case of larger embassies in the most dangerous environments, as in Baghdad, secure housing is included, along with some of the amenities of home – restaurants, gyms, pools, cinemas, shopping – that can give the compound the air of an enclave. The US government cleared the new Baghdad Embassy for occupancy last week, with the embassy's 700 employees and up to 250 military personnel expected to move in over the month of May, according to Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

$1 billion a year to operate

The $740 million compound – expected to cost more than $1 billion a year to operate – was originally expected to cost $600 million to build and was to open in September 2007. Design changes and faulty construction caused repeated delays. Congress learned last fall of problems with the site's electrical system, and early this year reports surfaced of significant problems with the fire-fighting systems. Nevertheless, embassy personnel have been anxious for the complex, with more than 600 blast-resistant apartments, to open and give them some refuge from the mortar fire that has increasingly targeted the Green Zone this year. Last month, a mortar slammed into one of the unfortified trailers where personnel now sleep, killing an American civilian contractor. At least two US soldiers have died from rocket fire on the Green Zone since then.

But even the embassy's opening may not be assuaging diplomats' concerns about assignments in Iraq. Last week, the State Department warned that it may start ordering employees to serve at the embassy next year if more volunteers do not come forward for the 300 posts expected to open. The State Department announcement follows a similar warning last fall of a shortfall of volunteers for about 50 Iraq positions. Candidates were eventually found without any compulsory assignments for 2008, but the prospect of ordered assignments to a war zone caused tensions at the department. Such challenges to the full manning of the new embassy have yet to reach Iraqi ears.

Still, some Iraqis who condemn the imagery of the imposing new compound say they are even more critical of what, in an indirect way, it also tells Iraqis about their own leadership."What does it say to Iraqis that we cannot walk along a beautiful part of the river in our own land because of this big American place?" says Qasim Sabti, an Iraqi artist and Baghdad gallery owner. "But it shows us something else about our own government," he adds. "At least the Americans could build this thing, but we Iraqis have no new buildings or streets, everything is destroyed – but still the corruption is so great that the money goes into pockets before it can build something new."

Other Iraqis say the embassy highlights the long-term interests the US has in both Iraq and the region. "If it is so big, it is a reflection of the size of the designs they have for Iraq and the Middle East," says Maimoon al-Khaldi, an actor and professor at Baghdad's Fine Arts Academy. "It is a sign of their energy agenda and of their security agenda in this region," he adds. "This building faces the Iraqis, yes, but also the Iranians they have declared to be their enemies."

Mr. Jabbar says the Americans "surely have a right and duty to protect their delegation here." But he says he still wouldn't have built something so large. "That is too much of a symbol," he says. "It sends a message to the Iraqis that says, 'Be careful, we removed Saddam Hussein and we can remove what has come after him anytime we want.'"

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