No one in Baghdad wants to talk about U.S. Embassy project

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Don't ask about the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. It's a secret—security reasons.

But it's hard keeping a 104-acre complex rising on the banks of the Tigris River hidden. Anyone who cares to know can easily see four giant construction cranes towering over the river at the largest such project ever undertaken by the United States—a symbol of American presence that will last well into the future.

When the complex is completed by June 2007—this one apparently is on schedule, unlike most construction projects here—it will be an American oasis in the heavily fortified Green Zone, away from the fear and lack of services that permeate the rest of Baghdad. Among the 21 buildings will be a recreation center to rival any in the United States with, among other amenities, a pool, gym, food court, beauty salon and, of course, the American Club.

Baghdad may have little potable water and only a few hours of electricity a day, but the embassy complex will have its own water treatment facilities and electricity generator.

First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a subcontractor of Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown and Root, was granted the $592 million construction contract. By December it had already been paid about $483 million.

The company is a relative novice when it comes to embassy building and has been criticized for its treatment of Asian workers, who critics claim are imported for their low wages and work under hard conditions. About 900 laborers live on site as they build the complex, according to a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has congressional oversight responsibility for the project.

But little else can be gleaned about the expansive complex, which will sit on some of central Baghdad's most desirable real estate and will, when finished, dominate the view of anyone standing on the other side of the river.

U.S. officials here greet questions about the site with a curtness that borders on hostility. Reporters are referred to the State Department in Washington, which declined to answer questions for security reasons. A tour seems to be out of the question; no formal response was given to a request for one.

The only person who would comment on the reasons behind the massive size of the rising embassy was the spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the foreign relations committee.

"The anticipation has always been that the U.S. will have a large diplomatic presence in Iraq," said Andy Fisher.

Money for the project was approved as part of a separate emergency appropriation for embassy security, construction and maintenance and wasn't part of the $18.4 billion set aside for Iraq reconstruction.

The construction project is larger than that of any U.S. embassy built on foreign soil. In 2004, the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations said the U.S. Embassy in China was the largest embassy construction project, but at a mere 10 acres and five buildings, it isn't even comparable to what's going up here.

The same might be said for the recently completed embassy in Yeremev, Armenia, which at a cost of $80 million covers only 22 acres and three buildings.

What might be the next largest embassy site couldn't be learned for certain. The Bureau of Overseas Building Operations declined to say, citing security reasons.

Beyond security, it's no secret why a luxurious embassy might be needed in Baghdad. The State Department is finding it more difficult to persuade people to staff the embassy here, the foreign relations committee report said. The post needs people with language skills and experience that are already hard to find. Americans can't bring their families here, and the kidnappings and violence relegate Americans to the embassy complex.

The current embassy staff, about 1,000 Americans, lives in makeshift trailers in the Green Zone and works out of temporary quarters at the Republican Palace, which Saddam Hussein built to honor himself. It's also where the Americans have added a Starbucks-like cafe.

When the new complex is completed, the Americans will live in 700-square-foot apartments that will take up six of the new buildings. The Republican Palace will be turned over to the Iraqis, and the Americans will move into a palace of their own making.


(Fadel reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.