George Bush's Palace
The new United States Embassy in Iraq will cost $562 million and will be the largest embassy on earth. It will essentially be a small city, with office buildings, a future school, six apartment buildings, and a recreation building with a gym, exercise room, the American Club, a commissary, food court, movie theater, tennis courts, barber and beauty shops. It will also have the largest swimming pool in Iraq as well as its own power and water plants. There will be 1,500 embassy staff including 1,000 Americans and 500 Iraqi foreign service nationals. The office buildings will be large enough to handle up to 8,000 workers. The project is so huge that it will be larger than Vatican City; about the size of 80 football fields. In contrast, the Beijing embassy that will open in 2008 had been described as the "largest single construction project undertaken by the Department of State on foreign soil". It is ten acres, compared to Iraq's 104 acres.
According to the U.K. Times, the Iraqi people call this "George Bush's Palace". In the Baghdad cafes, they "moan that the structure is bigger than anything Saddam Hussein built" and are "interested in knowing whether the US State Department paid for the prime real estate or simply took it." They are angry that the facility is the only re-construction project that is on time and within budget and that it will have its own power and water facilities, while they still wait for the day when they will reach pre-war levels of electricity and clean water. They are also angry that Kuwaiti workers are being used to build the facility, while the Iraqi unemployment rate is between 30 and 60 percent.
Imagine the message we are sending to the Iraqi people and how this embassy can be used as an al Qaeda recruiting tool. Along with the military bases, this shows the United States intends to have a substantial long-term presence in Iraq. The International Crisis Group said the embassy's size "is seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country". "Infidels in the holy land" has always been a major problem for Islamic fundamentalists. How will they react to the United States essentially creating a small city on the banks of the Tigris River? Certainly this embassy could become a prime target for a future terrorist attack. This will put our employees in danger and create huge security costs.
At home, we also have to ask what kind of message we are sending to American citizens. FEMA just closed its office in New Orleans, while much of the city is still in ruins. While massive re-construction is needed in our own country, this embassy is within budget and on-time. At a time when our country is running huge deficits and cutting programs for the poor, is it a good use of our resources to operate such a huge facility with so many employees? The current Iraq mission has 1,000 employees and the 2005 operating cost was about $1 billion, excluding the cost of construction. Is this an indicator of how much this will cost in the future?
How effective will our diplomacy be if we start out by angering the Iraqi people with the scale of the project? And, as former Iraq ambassador Edward L. Peck observed, "the embassy is going to have a thousand people hunkered behind sandbags. I don't know how you can conduct diplomacy that way."
John Brown, former foreign service officer, said it best. "Why should the new embassy in Iraq be so large in the first place? Are hundreds of Americans holed up in Emerald City really a way to assist the 'new Iraq'? Couldn't a smaller, leaner, and better prepared mission - with a well defined mission do a more efficient job? And wouldn't a more modestly sized embassy communicate an important message that the Bush administration is supposedly trying to bring home to the new Iraqi government and the local population; that the fate of their country is in their hands, not in those of occupying forces."
The State Department is in charge of diplomacy. They are charged with understanding the local culture and customs and to promote good will with the host country. With this embassy, we are getting off on the wrong foot.
Among the many secrets the American government cannot keep, one of its biggest (104 acres) and most expensive ($592 million) is the American Embassy being built in Baghdad. Surrounded by fifteen-foot-thick walls, almost as large as the Vatican on a scale comparable to the Mall of America, to which it seems to have a certain spiritual affinity, this is no simple object to hide.
So you think the Bush Administration is planning on leaving Iraq? Read on.
The Chicago Tribune reports, "Trucks shuttle building materials to and fro. Cranes, at least a dozen of them, punch toward the sky. Concrete structures are beginning to take form. At a time when most Iraqis are enduring blackouts of up to 22 hours a day, the site is floodlighted by night so work can continue around the clock."
It will come as less than a surprise to learn that this project was subbed out to an outfit in Kuwait. The Tribune says that "for security reasons, the new embassy is being built entirely by imported labor. The contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Co., which was linked to human-trafficking allegations by a Chicago Tribune investigation last year, has hired a workforce of 900 mostly Asian workers who live on the site." In a land where half the population is out of work the United States ought to win countless native hearts and minds with this labor policy.
On the other hand, the latest is that the facilities for the 8,000 people scheduled to work in the vice-regal compound will be completed on time next year. Doubtless the cooks, janitors and serving staff attending to the Americans' needs and comforts in this establishment, which is said to exceed in luxury and appointments anything Saddam Hussein built for himself, will not be Iraqis either.
According to Knight Ridder, "US officials here [in Baghdad] 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." Photographers attempting to get pictures of what the locals call "George W's Palace" are confined to using telephoto lenses on this, the largest construction project undertaken by Iraq's American visitors.
Nonetheless, we know much of what is going on in the place, where there will soon be twenty-one buildings, 619 apartments with very fancy digs for the big shots, restaurants, shops, gym facilities, a swimming pool, a food court, a beauty salon, a movie theater (we can't say if it's a multiplex) and, as the Times of London reports, "a swish club for evening functions." This should be ideal for announcing the various new milestones marking the trudge of the Iraqi people toward democracy and freedom.
USA Today has learned that the "massive new embassy, being built on the banks of the Tigris River, is designed to be entirely self-sufficient and won't be dependent on Iraq's unreliable public utilities." Thus, there will be no reason or excuse for any of the thousands of Americans working in this space, which is about the size of eighty football fields, to share the daily life experience of an Iraqi or even come in accidental contact with one.
"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," writes Knight Ridder's Leila Fadel. "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." Thus it appears that our diplomatic personnel are more like mercenaries than Doctors Without Borders. The "above and beyond the call of duty" stuff is strictly for our beleaguered soldiers.
This gigantic complex does not square with the repeated assertions by the people who run the American government that the United States will not stay in the country after Iraq becomes a stand-alone, democratic entity. An "embassy" in which 8,000 people labor, along with the however many thousand military personnnel necessary to defend them, is not a diplomatic outpost. It is a base. A permanent base.
So it turns out that the plan, if that is the right word for the haphazard, faith-based, fact-free and data-scarce decision-making that has been the one constant in this adventure, is to stay in Baghdad and run the country. This is beyond lunacy.
There are these 8,000 Americans holed up in a private city, who do not dare to leave their fortified luxury bunker for fear of being killed or kidnapped and tortured if caught outside their fortified walls, and who are trying to run the country by giving orders to the Iraqi government, which is also operating out of the Green Zone, that vast fortified place isolated from the people of the country.
Democrats demanding an exit strategy from Iraq are routinely derided by the Bush Administration as cowards who "cut and run." But if this Embassy plan is not a form of cut and run, what is it? Instead of cutting and making a run for Kuwait, they intend to cut and run into what amounts to the world's largest bunker, a capacious rat hole where they can wait in safety until all the Iraqis have killed one another or all factions unite, march on this air-conditioned citadel and slit the throats of its irrelevant inhabitants.
GEORGE BUSH'S SECRET PALACE
THE plans are a state secret, so just where the Starbucks and Krispy Kreme stores will be is a mystery. But as the concrete hulks of a huge 21-building complex rise from the ashes of Saddam's Baghdad, Washington is sending a clear message to Iraqis: "We're here to stay."
It's being built in the Middle East, but George W's palace, as the locals have dubbed the new US embassy, is designed as a suburb of Washington.
An army of more than 3500 diplomatic and support staff will have their own sports centre, beauty parlour and swimming pool. Each of the six residential blocks will contain more than 600 apartments.
The prime 25-hectare site was a steal it was a gift from the Iraqi Government. And if the five-metre-thick perimeter walls don't keep the locals at bay, then the built-in surface-to-air missile station should.
Guarded by a dozen gangly cranes, the site in the heart of the Green Zone is floodlit by night and is so removed from Iraqi reality that its entire construction force is foreign.
After almost four years, the Americans still can't turn on the lights for the Iraqis, but that won't be a problem for the embassy staffers. The same with the toilets they will always flush on command. All services for the biggest embassy in the world will operate independently from the rattletrap utilities of the Iraqi capital.
Scheduled for completion next June, this is the only US reconstruction project in Iraq that is on track. Costing more than $US600 million ($A787 million), the fortress is bigger than the Vatican. It dwarfs the edifices of Saddam's wildest dreams and irritates the hell out of ordinary Iraqis.
On a recent visit to the real Baghdad outside the Green Zone a deepening sectarian separation was evident. Abu Zaman, a Shiite trucker who often updates The Age on life in the capital, had some personal news: "My daughter is upset because I blocked her wedding plans," he said. "He was a nice boy rich and a good job but he was a Sunni."
Making fake identity papers is a thriving business as Shiites and Sunnis attempt to blur their allegiances in a city where a name can be a death sentence. Men called Ali, Jaafar and Haider are almost certainly Shiites. Omar, Marwan and Khalid are Sunni names.
Shiite taxi driver Salwan al-Robian was unlucky. Earlier this month he used false papers to get through a Sunni checkpoint south of Baghdad. His companions told The Age that he gave himself away by invoking the name of Imam Ali, the Shiite saint, when he exclaimed his good fortune in surviving the roadblock. The Sunni gunman heard him and he was dragged off. His family recovered his body from the Tigris River a few days later.
In the Chaos of Iraq, One Project is on Target: a Giant US Embassy
The question puzzles and enrages a city: how is it that the Americans cannot keep the electricity running in Baghdad for more than a couple of hours a day, yet still manage to build themselves the biggest embassy on Earth?
Irritation grows as residents deprived of air-conditioning and running water three years after the US-led invasion watch the massive US Embassy they call “George W’s palace” rising from the banks of the Tigris.
In the pavement cafés, people moan that the structure is bigger than anything Saddam Hussein built. They are not impressed by the architects’ claims that the diplomatic outpost will be visible from space and cover an area that is larger than the Vatican city and big enough to accommodate four Millennium Domes. They are more interested in knowing whether the US State Department paid for the prime real estate or simply took it.
While families in the capital suffer electricity cuts, queue all day to fuel their cars and wait for water pipes to be connected, the US mission due to open in June next year will have its own power and water plants to cater for a population the size of a small town.
Officially, the design of the compound is supposed to be a secret, but you cannot hide the giant construction cranes and the concrete contours of the 21 buildings that are taking shape. Looming over the skyline, the embassy has the distinction of being the only big US building project in Iraq that is on time and within budget.
In a week when Washington revealed a startling list of missed deadlines and overspending on building projects, Congress was told that the bill for the embassy was $592 million (£312 million).
The heavily guarded 42-hectare (104-acre) site — which will have a 15ft thick perimeter wall — has hundreds of workers swarming on scaffolding. Local residents are bitter that the Kuwaiti contractor has employed only foreign staff and is busing them in from a temporary camp nearby.
After roughing it in Saddam’s abandoned palaces, diplomats should have every comfort in their new home. There will be impressive residences for the Ambassador and his deputy, six apartments for senior officials, and two huge office blocks for 8,000 staff to work in. There will be what is rumoured to be the biggest swimming pool in Iraq, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a cinema, restaurants offering delicacies from favourite US food chains, tennis courts and a swish American Club for evening functions.
The security measures being installed are described as extraordinary. US officials are preparing for the day when the so-called green zone, the fortified and sealed-off compound where international diplomats and Iraq’s leaders live and work, is reopened to the rest of the city’s residents, and American diplomats can retreat to their own secure area.
Iraqi politicians opposed to the US presence protest that the scale of the project suggests that America retains long-term ambitions here. The International Crisis Group, a think-tank, said the embassy’s size “is seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country”.
A State Department official said that the size reflected the “massive amount of work still facing the US and our commitment to see it through”.