Published on
the Toronto Star/Canada

American Mega-Embassy in Iraq Stirs Echoes of Somalia

Alexandra Zavis

BAGHDAD-Huge, expensive and dogged by controversy, the new American 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 floodlit 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.''

For all its scale and nearly $600 million (U.S.) cost, the compound designed to accommodate more than 1,000 people is not big enough and might 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 earlier this month.

"Having the `heavily fortified Green Zone' doesn't matter one iota to indirect fire," said one senior military officer, using a term for rocket and mortar attacks.

Like much U.S. planning in Iraq, the embassy was conceived nearly three years ago on assumptions that stability was around the corner, and that the military effort would draw down, leaving behind an 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 defence 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 centre of an ongoing war effort.''


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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 Fort 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 barber shop and beauty salon. It is designed to be entirely self-sufficient, boasting its own power plant, wells and waste-water treatment system, according to a December 2005 report for the U.S. 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 Kennedy, the State Department's management chief, who travelled to Iraq in May to review embassy staffing. How much the housing will add to the cost has not been determined.

The project has echoes of 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 in the power vacuum left by the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre's dictatorship in 1991.

The magnitude of the new compound has convinced many Iraqis that the United States harbours 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 U.S. embassy currently is housed in Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, also inside the Green Zone. The new complex is set to open Sept. 1.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007

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