The New Embassy Compound in Baghdad:
Dysfunctional Imperial Symbol
This page > What's wrong with it? Magnitude, Cost, Militarization Dysfunctional Isolation Extremely Late, Slave Labor Present (Temporary) Embassy


What's wrong with the New Embassy Compound in Baghdad's Green (now "International") Zone?     (TOP)

Among other things, it is

And most of all, in the bigger picture, it

Magnitude, Cost and Militarization -- a clear but regrettable imperial symbol     (TOP)

The NEC occupies 104 acres. It is

Designed by the architectural firm Berger Define Yaeger (on whose website the plans were temporarily posted before being quickly removed, the "embassy's" 21 buildings were supposed to cost $600 million. This makes it the largest and most expensive such compound in the world, in a country with a population roughly the size of Texas. By comparison, the second largest -- the American embassy in Beijing, a country with a population 50 times as large as Iraq's -- occupies 10 acres and is now expected to cost almost $750 million.

As such, intended to house the top American military staff in the country, and accompanied by a set of "enduring" military bases [*] in Iraq which are linked to the Green Zone by a military communications system, it is small wonder that it is viewed all over the world as an unambiguous symbol of American intentions to control the Middle East from an irreversible foothold in Iraq.

However, it isn't only the rest of the world that recognizes the symbolism. On May 10, 2007, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) was questioning Secretary of State Rice about the increasing cost and size. He commented:

"Now, having said over and over again that we don't want to be seen as an occupying force in Iraq, we're building the largest embassy that we have -- probably the largest in the world -- in Baghdad. And it just seems to grow and grow and grow. . . We agree that we should focus our aid locally not in Baghdad, but we have 1,000 Americans at the embassy in Baghdad. You add the contractors and the local staff it comes to 4,000."

And as if the initial price tag of $750 million weren't enough, Senate staffers at the time of those May hearings were estimating the NEC's annual operating costs of $1.2 billion.

Dysfunctional Isolation     (TOP)

Embassies are the representation of one country in another. As such, they act as a two-way channel of communication and experience. That process relies on contact and, if possible, understanding between the embassy personnel and the people of the country in which they reside. Because of security concerns, the NEC is enclosed behind high 15-foot thick walls.

Designed to be completely self-contained, needing no contact with the local population, it contains its own

  • school
  • fire station
  • power plant
  • water treatment plant
  • wastewater treatment facility
  • telecommunications facility
  • grass gardens
  • palm-lined avenues
  • gym
  • volleyball and basketball courts
  • swimming pool
  • PX
  • commissary
  • beauty parlor
  • cinema
  • retail and shopping areas
  • restaurants
  • lavish American Club
  • desk space for 1000
  • apartment space for 615

As Jane Loeffler, author of The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies, wrote in an article called "Fortress America" in Foreign Policy Magazine (

"Traditionally, at least, embassies were designed to further interaction with the community in which they were built. Diplomats visited the offices of local government officials, shopped at local businesses, took their suits to the neighborhood dry cleaner, socialized with community leaders, and mixed with the general public. Diplomacy is not the sort of work that can be done by remote control. It takes direct contact to build goodwill for the United States and promote democratic values. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the United States to maintain its 250-plus diplomatic posts around the world. The embassy in Baghdad, however, appears to represent a sea change in U.S. diplomacy. Although U.S. diplomats will technically be "in Iraq," they may as well be in Washington..."

"Although the U.S. government regularly proclaims confidence in Iraq's democratic future, the United States has designed an embassy that conveys no confidence in Iraqis and little hope for their future. Instead, the United States has built a fortress capable of sustaining a massive, long-term presence in the face of continued violence. … Given the costs of the new compound, the United States would not likely part with its latest Baghdad embassy under almost any circumstances, including escalating violence."

Since the NEC was designed, the Green Zone -- and Embassy Row -- has become a much more dangerous place. State Department personnel have to wear helmets and flak jackets when outside of buildings. NEC building designs had to be modified to withstand mortar and rocket attacks. But it isn't clear how this will help people between buildings, given that, in spite of its high walls, the NEC doesn't have an overarching roof.

And located as it is right between two major shopping districts -- the Mansoor and the Karada -- the NEC creates logistical problems for the city. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out that

"You should have put the embassy on the edge of the city, where it does not disrupt the main business districts of the city... The symbolism is this is not an embassy, but a palace."
Extremely late, even with slave labor     (TOP)

Contracted to First Kuwait General Trade and Contracting, the construction project involved about 3500 workers. Among these were Filipinos described in testimony before Congress in June 2007 by a First Kuwait subcontractor's employee as kidnapped slave labor. He and other former foremen and managers of the operation described horrendous working conditions, frequent strikes, attempted escapes, large numbers of injuries with little or no (or worse, dangerous) medical treatment.

The NEC was to be turned over on September 1, 2007 for occupancy. It wasn't ready.

Part of this failure turned out to have been due to poor planning, shoddy workmanship and internal disputes, which had been obfuscated by the secrecy with which the project manager, retired Army Gen. Charles Williams, ran the project. Key government people in Iraq and the U.S. were unaware of a backlog of unaddressed problems cited as far back as August, when Williams in December said the project was "substantially completed" and ready to occupy. It wasn't until February that a report identified wiring problems and critical faults in the fire-fighting system. The situation ended up the subject of a Justice Department investigation and State Department probe.

Trying to deal with the shoddy workmanship, the State Department requested and received permission from the Iraqi government for 2,000 non-Iraqi construction workers to stay on until March. In March, Richard Shinnick, who had taken over in January as acting director of State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, sent a team of State Department architects, engineers, attorneys and contracting officers to fix the problems.

Also contributing to the failure to meet the occupancy deadline were various last-minute changes sought by State Department officials. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice asked Congress in May 2007 for $50 million for additional buildings because the situation in Iraq had changed since the original plans (including the decision to house the top military brass there, requiring extra places for storing classified material). In October, the request was upped to $144 million.

In March 2008, after the invasion of Basra and attacks on cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army by Prime Minister al-Maliki's security forces, the Green Zone came under heavy mortar and rocket attacks, making the existing temporary embassy in the Green Zone a dangerous place, with a number of Iraqi and American deaths. Although project director Shinnick initially declined to give an estimated date for completion of the NEC, by early April he claimed the fire-fighting system was working and people could occupy it.

Some staff began sleeping there, shuttling to the Green Zone for work. Work in the NEC will have to wait until the State Department signs the occupancy certificate and computers and telephones and office supplies have been installed. Day-to-day oversight of maintenance and operation of the NEC will be in the hands of contractor PAE Government Services.

What the security of employees will be remains to be seen. The NEC is farther away than the temporary embassy is from Sadr City, the source of the incoming "indirect fire." The NEC buildings were at great cost retrofitted to be blast resistant. But movement between buildings may be problematic, and it isn't clear what effect a continued pounding might have on the various utility systems that support the complex. In May 2008, reports appeared indicating that the Mahdi Army had begun using ordinance with a much longer range.

The Present (Temporary) Embassy     (TOP)

What came before this eighth Wonder of the World? The initial American Embassy, set up in Saddam's former royal palace. Tom Hartmann wrote a good background piece for it:

"It is worth remembering that, when the American commanders whose troops had just taken Baghdad wanted their victory photo snapped, they memorably seated themselves, grinning happily, behind a marble table in one of those captured palaces; that American soldiers and newly arrived officials marveled at the former tyrant's exotic symbols of power; that they swam in Saddam's pools, fed rare antelopes from his son Uday's private zoo to its lions (and elsewhere shot his herd of gazelles and ate them themselves); and, when in need of someplace to set up an American embassy, the newly arrived occupation officials chose -- are you surprised? -- one of his former dream palaces. They found nothing strange in the symbolism of this (though it was carefully noted by Baghdadis), even as they swore they were bringing liberation and democracy to Saddam's benighted land."

This present embassy is clearly an appropriate symbolic precursor to its yet-to-be-completed reincarnation.

See also Embassy Documents and News

*   Note on "enduring" bases -- The Pentagon has shifted its usage from "permanent" to "enduring". But this isn't all that might confound the attempts in Congress to put an end to permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. In this transcript of testimony of Assistant Defense Secretary Mary Beth Long and State Department Iraq Coordinator David Satterfield before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 11 April 2008, under questioning from James Webb (D,VA), an interesting exchange took place:
    Long: As far as the department is concerned, we don't have a worldwide or even a department-wide definition of permanent bases. I believe those are, by and large, determined on a case-by-case basis. . . .
    Webb: Well, I understand that. But basically my point is it's sort of a dead word. It doesn't really mean anything.
    Long: Yes, Senator, you're completely right. It doesn't. . . .
    Webb: We've had bases in Korea since 1953, anyway, and I would be hard-pressed to say they're permanent. How long is permanent?. . .
    Long: Senator, you're exactly right. I think most lawyers . . . would say that the word 'permanent' probably refers more to the state of mind contemplated by the use[r?] of the term.

Last updated: 15 May 2008
List of sources used for this article
Also available: a Congressional Research Service report on the NEC, last updated October 2007

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