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Baghdad's Fortress America: US Builds Bunker of an Embassy in Iraq

The United States is building a fortress in Baghdad's Green Zone to serve as its embassy. But the giant project may turn into a disaster as questions are raised about how the construction is being run -- and whether a self-contained bunker is the best approach to diplomacy.

The new US embassy complex is under construction in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
AFP

The new US embassy complex is under construction in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

The new American embassy currently rising from the dust of the Green Zone in Baghdad will break all records. It covers an area of 400,000 square meters, six times that of the United Nations complex in New York and 10 times that of the new US embassy in Beijing. It's said to be the largest embassy the US has ever built; at a cost of $592 million (€416 million), it's certainly the most expensive.

But now the State Department in Washington is having to face accusations of mismanagement and shoddy building practices. Due to last-minute repairs that will add an estimated $150 million to the building's price tag, the embassy, which was scheduled to open in September 2007, won't open its doors until the beginning of next year.

So far, criticism has been restrained. But behind closed doors, Democrats and senior Iraqi politicians are quietly wondering whether the giant project might turn into a giant disaster.

The State Department's inspector general has opened a probe into the sole-source contracts to determine whether their expense is justified and whether the tendering process was short-circuited in order to privilege particular companies. The First Kuwaiti General Trade and Contracting Company, which won the construction contract, is currently under investigation by the Justice Department for alleged labor abuses.

The bunker mentality behind the project has also been questioned. "What kind of embassy is it when everybody lives inside and it's blast-proof, and people are running around with helmets and crouching behind sandbags?" asked Edward Peck, a former American diplomat in Iraq, in remarks quoted by the Associated Press.

The "Mega Bunker of Baghdad" includes 619 bomb-proof, one-room apartments.
AFP

The "Mega Bunker of Baghdad" includes 619 bomb-proof, one-room apartments.

In the November issue of Vanity Fair, award-winning American journalist William Langewiesche calls the building the "Mega Bunker of Baghdad" and claims that it will serve all needs other than diplomatic ones. The message that the building conveys has nothing to do with withdrawal, Langewiesche writes.

Washington is doing all it can to protect its mission and to keep its people as far removed as possible from day-to-day life in Iraq. Under normal circumstances, there should be no reason -- or opportunity -- for American personnel to leave the complex. In addition to the 15 official embassy buildings, there are six apartment buildings with 619 bomb-proof, one-room apartments.

The new Baghdad complex will contain its own power station, a movie theater, beauty salon, tennis courts and a large pool, as well as a post office and a mobile phone network -- with an upstate New York area code.

And no Iraqis are involved in building the new embassy. The architectural office responsible for the project is based in Kansas, the construction company is Kuwaiti and the construction workers come from Bangladesh and Nepal.

Since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, roughly 1,000 American diplomatic and military staff have been using the former dictator's palace as a makeshift embassy -- drawing unwanted comparisons between the two forms of rule.

nmb/spiegel

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