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Iraq: U.S. Scrambles To Set Up World's Biggest Embassy In Baghdad

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The United States is setting up a new embassy in Baghdad to assume U.S. responsibilities in Iraq after sovereignty is returned to Iraqis on 30 June. It will be the world's biggest U.S. embassy, with some 4,000 staff members. But the sheer size of the project is proving an organizational challenge -- and raising questions about America's future intentions in Iraq.

Washington, 10 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is set to establish the world's biggest embassy when it opens its new Baghdad headquarters in June in a palace that once belonged to Saddam Hussein.

News of the urgent efforts to set up the new embassy came this week in the major U.S. daily "The Washington Post."

Analysts say that everything about the new embassy -- its size, location, and likely responsibilities -- suggest that Washington hopes to continue to help guide events in Baghdad even after the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) hands sovereignty back to Iraqis on 30 June.

With a staff of 4,000 U.S. officials and Iraqi employees, the embassy will oversee the spending of $18.6 billion in vital aid -- about three times the amount of U.S. aid allocated to the rest of the world -- while housing officers in charge of some 100,000 U.S. soldiers set to remain in Iraq.

"We have been relatively slow in getting the $18.6 billion actually beginning to move into the economy. As it begins to move, it should pick up the level of employment and thus begin to reduce the restlessness."
Bathsheba Crocker, a former U.S. diplomat, is an expert in postconflict reconstruction at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think one thing that's important to remember is that in embassies of a large size anywhere in the world, those embassies tend to include people from many different agencies," she told RFE/RL. "So they're not only the typical State Department diplomats, foreign service officers, and others who will be at the embassy. Presumably there will also be a fairly significant CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] presence there, there may very well be people from a lot of other agencies, too: the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Treasury, etc."

Because officials want to avoid the chaos of last-minute changes in personnel and responsibilities, the embassy is set to open a month before the deadline for restoring sovereignty.

The State Department, which is coordinating closely with the Pentagon, is reportedly scouring its embassies around the globe in an effort to find rare Arabic-speaking U.S. officials and others best suited for the job. According to "The Washington Post," 200 diplomats around the world have responded to calls to fill some 1,000 positions.

Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, co-directed a study on postwar Iraq released yesterday in Washington by the Council on Foreign Relations. Pickering said it is vital for the embassy to assume U.S. responsibilities in Iraq from the CPA as seamlessly as possible. "With the phase-out of the CPA in June and the movement of the aid operation to a new United States Embassy, our most important recommendation may not relate to the CPA as such, but rather to the need to move quickly to structure the administration and staffing of a new U.S. Embassy," he said. "That must be, and ought to be, a key U.S. priority."

The CPA has been based in Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace since shortly after U.S.-led forces entered Baghdad last year and set up a "Green Zone" around the building to guard against attacks. According to "The Washington Post," officials decided that because of ongoing security problems and the lack of an adequate alternative, the new embassy will have to remain at the palace -- at least for a few more years. Crocker, who has also served as a White House official, says the Hussein association may not help image-wise, but Washington has more pressing concerns, such as overseeing the spending of the assistance funds.

James R. Schlesinger, a former U.S. secretary of energy and defense, partnered with Pickering to lead the study on Iraq. He told reporters in Washington that spending the aid money has become a top priority for the Bush administration as it seeks to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. "We have been relatively slow in getting the $18.6 billion actually beginning to move into the economy," he said. "As it begins to move, it should pick up the level of employment and thus begin to reduce the restlessness."

In theory, the new embassy's establishment will mark the transfer of U.S. power in Iraq from the Department of Defense to the State Department. However, U.S. officials said in Baghdad this week that the Pentagon will have control over spending most of the rebuilding funds, much of which will go to infrastructure projects.

U.S. media reports say the decision to give the Pentagon authority over the spending has come after a protracted struggle with the State Department. Crocker adds that the tussle has left confusion in its wake and slowed down the disbursement of funds, thus hampering reconstruction. "I can't say I am surprised about the fact that there has been yet another tussle going on between the State Department and the Defense Department that is having very real and damaging effects on the ground," she said. "It has thus far held up the awarding of contracts for at least a month. It's a bit confusing to me at this point what the various roles and responsibilities and plans are of the U.S. government, come 1 July."

Schlesinger also noted the perceived confusion in the roles of U.S. government departments in Iraq. He urged the Bush administration to work to unify the various efforts of the Pentagon, State Department, and others to better coordinate U.S. assistance.

As for Iraqis, will the new embassy offer a new American face in Iraq? Might they possibly resent the massive U.S. presence, lingering on after the return of sovereignty? Schlesinger, for one, doubts it. He says that U.S. assistance money trickling into the Iraqi economy is likely to be welcomed by most Iraqis, whom he says generally want the U.S. military to stay for some time to help ensure security.

And Crocker believes the new embassy won't actually change much in the way Iraqis perceive the U.S. presence in their country. She says the face of America in Iraq has been the U.S. soldier and will continue to be for some time -- long after a U.S. army of suit-and-tie bureaucrats has taken over the Republican Palace.

"They're going to feel the lack of difference more in the fact that there are still 100,000 U.S. troops around the country than the fact that civilians are hunkered down in the palace. Which is to say that at present Iraqis don't see the U.S. civilians very much and they probably will continue not to see them very much because they will be hunkered down. What they will continue to see is a significant number of U.S. troops out and about throughout their country. And that has really been the face of the occupation up until now -- and will continue to be," Crocker said.
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