At the heart of George W. Bush’s “new way forward” – which the president is expected to announce on Wednesday and involve substantial troop reinforcements – is the plan already under way to expand the US civilian presence across Iraq and complete the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad.
Construction of what critics call “Fortress Baghdad” has led to arguments inside the State Department amid fears that the overwhelming diplomatic presence will perpetuate a sense of US occupation and become a focus of local anger.
US diplomats say that just as the armed forces are being stretched to breaking point, the US foreign service is suffering from low morale and operations in the rest of the world are being damaged by the diversion of resources to Iraq.
Officials are also questioning why the Bush administration is sending more civilians into a deteriorating war zone, and the effectiveness of the work they can do.
The embassy compound being built inside Baghdad’s Green Zone covers 104 acres, making it six times larger than the United Nations compound in New York. A city within a city for more than 1,000 people, it will have its own water, sewers and electricity, six apartment buildings, a Marine barracks, swimming pool, shops and some walls 15 feet thick.
The State Department has told the Financial Times that the US civilian presence in Iraq has “grown considerably beyond the numbers projected for the new embassy compound”, which is scheduled for completion by September 1 at a cost of $592m (€455m, £307m).
The department and other agencies, such as the Pentagon and Treasury which also supply staff, are working out how to accommodate the extra numbers that Mr Bush is expected to announce this week. Recruits are being attracted to one-year posts by a mix of cajoling and inducement – an almost doubling of their salary, four trips outside Iraq and guarantees of favourable postings afterwards.
Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, and other officials have repeatedly sent cables to personnel around the world saying diplomats have a patriotic duty to volunteer for Baghdad and the expanding “provincial reconstruction teams”, where diplomats work out of military bases.
“Baghdad dwarfs everything else. It is becoming a monster that has to be fed every year with a new crop of volunteers,” says one diplomat.
So far the State Department has not resorted to compulsory or “directed” assignments, a practice last used during the Vietnam war. But it has warned it would put assignments elsewhere on hold “if Iraq and Afghanistan and other priority posts are not staffed”.
Among the many recommendations of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq, issued in December, was that diplomats and other US personnel should be obliged to serve in Iraq if there were not enough volunteers.
Steve Kashkett, vice-president of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional body representing US foreign service officers, questions their logic.
“It makes no sense for the Iraq report authors simultaneously to propose scaling back the US military presence and beefing up the presence of unarmed US diplomats in a combat zone,” he writes this month in the association’s journal.
John Brown, who resigned as a US diplomat in protest against the 2003 invasion and now teaches public diplomacy, says the embassy “will be a symbol of the US occupation and the near-total separation of US embassy staff members from the society with which they are supposed to interact”.
“Indeed, the planned embassy reminds me of the huge, cavernous buildings that housed Soviet missions in eastern Europe during the cold war. They were hated by the local population for all they stood for: secrecy, arrogance and domination.”
Of the 1,000 or so US civilians staffing Baghdad at present – not including large numbers of private-sector bodyguards – there are about 200 career diplomats, plus some 70 in the provincial reconstruction teams that are set to expand.
Many other staffers are so-called “3161s” – recruited ad hoc and, according to the State Department, “fully qualified for their highly technical jobs”. Diplomats question this, saying many are incompetent and have been hired for their loyalty to the Republican effort.
Asked why the US was sending more diplomats into a war zone when such conditions elsewhere in the world would lead to closure or drawdown of embassies, the State Department said such comparisons were “inappropriate”, noting the embassy had suffered “minimal casualties”.