Saturday, May 20, 2006

The New American Embassy in Baghdad

The Secret Elephant in the RoomWhat is known:
  • The original cost estimates ranged over $1 billion. The complex is completed by June 2007, by a Haliburton subcontractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting.
  • 900 laborers, mostly from 3rd world countries, live on site as they build the complex.
  • The construction project is larger than that of any other U.S. embassy built on foreign soil.
  • 21 buildings will be a recreation center to rival any in the United States with, among other amenities, a pool, a gym, a food court, a beauty salon and, of course, a recreational area that will be called the American Club.
  • The complex will have its own water-treatment facilities and electricity generator.
  • The Embassy will 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.
Officially, it's a secret.
U.S. officials in Iraq 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.

Photographers are squeamish about taking pictures of the site, preferring to shoot from buildings at a distance or from inside cars. Security is already tight in the area because of the politicians and diplomats sheltered in the green zone, a 5.6-square-mile chunk of Baghdad surrounded by blast walls and snipers. Iraqis fear that looking at the site for too long, even from across the river, will draw an unwanted response.

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.