The Vatican of foreign missions. The Taj Mahal of embassies. The Palace of Versailles of diplomatic playgrounds. Yea, foreign service officers will vie, will compete, will jockey to be stationed there. Or will they prefer to stay farther back from the front lines of the jihad?
WASHINGTON “” The new U.S. embassy in Baghdad will be the world’s largest and most expensive foreign mission, though it may not be large enough or secure enough to cope with the chaos in Iraq.
The U.S. administration designed the 42-hectare compound, set to open in September in what today is a war zone, to be an ultra-secure enclave. Yet it also hoped that downtown Baghdad would cease being a battleground when diplomats moved in.
Over the long term, depending on which way the seesaw of sectarian division and grinding warfare teeters, the massive city-within-a-city could prove too enormous for the job of managing diminished U.S. interests in Iraq.
The US$592 million embassy occupies a chunk of prime real estate two-thirds the size of Washington’s National Mall, with desk space for about 1,000 people behind high, blast-resistant walls. The compound is a symbol both of how much the United States has invested in Iraq and how the circumstances of its involvement are changing.
A white elephant?
The embassy is one of the few major projects the administration has undertaken in Iraq that is on schedule and within budget. Still, not all has gone according to plan.
The 21-building complex on the Tigris River was envisioned three years ago partly as a headquarters for the democratic expansion in the Middle East that President George W. Bush identified as the organizing principle for foreign policy in his second term.
The complex quickly could become a white elephant if the U.S. scales back its presence and ambitions in Iraq. Although the U.S. probably will have forces in Iraq for years to come, it is not clear how much of the traditional work of diplomacy can proceed amid the violence and what the future holds for Iraq’s government.
“What you have is a situation in which they are building an embassy without really thinking about what its functions are,” said Edward Peck, a former top U.S. diplomat in Iraq.
“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?”
“We assume there will be a significant, enduring U.S. presence in Iraq,” Satterfield said.
The embassy also is a prime target.
The area around the construction site was hit with mortar fire this month. Other areas of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone were hit on consecutive days last week.
The increase in mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone has raised concern, especially because they are occurring during a U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad.
The embassy has ordered its staff to wear flak jackets and helmets while outdoors or in unprotected buildings. The order was issued one day after a rocket attack killed four Asian contractors in the Green Zone this month.
The U.S. State Department and Congress have tussled this year over a $50 million request for additional blast-resistant housing. The department says it did not anticipate needing so many fortified apartments when the embassy was in the planning stages three years ago and Iraq was a less violent place.
The new Democratic-controlled Congress has grumbled about the approximately $1 billion annual cost of embassy operations in Iraq and told the administration the embassy is overstaffed at roughly 1,000 regular employees. Add security contractors, locally hired staff and others and the number climbs to more than 4,000.
Who will screen the locally hired staff? How will the screening be carried out?