WASHINGTON – While politicians debate the length of time American troops and their mammoth military bases will remain in Iraq, construction of a Vatican-size U.S. embassy in the heart of Baghdad signifies a permanent presence is in the cards.
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Construction has been ongoing since last summer. According to State Department officials and a progress report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December, the new embassy will be a fortified compound sitting on 104 acres of American-owned land. Its completion is expected in June 2007 with a price tag of at least $600 million.
The compound will incorporate 21 structures including six apartment buildings with 619 units, several office buildings, a gym, swimming pool, commissary, food court and public utilities like water, sewage treatment and electricity that are separate from the rest of the city.
In short, say observers, it will be a walled city within a city — the largest embassy ever built in the world.
"As far as the size goes … both the president and the secretary of state have said that we are committed to rebuilding Iraq and to restoring the economy and to stabilizing the security," said State Department spokesman Justin Higgins. "The size of the embassy is in keeping with the goals of we have set for Iraq."
U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq have so far yielded mixed results. Stuart Bowen, inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, released his most recent quarterly report this month, stating that while the "overall picture conveys a sense of substantial progress in the relief, recovery and reconstruction of Iraq," basic services like water and electricity are still at or below pre-war levels, according to U.S and Iraqi officials, and projects like new health clinics and oil production have been besieged by security problems.
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The building of the embassy has continued, however, and is on budget and ahead of schedule, according to a May update to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The December report noted that even though reconstruction has been uneven, the embassy project has received positive feedback from senior Iraqi officials.
"Most major construction projects undertaken in Iraq since 2003 have not met these standards" of success but officials believe efforts "demonstrate that the U.S. is committed to staying and seeing the Iraq mission through."
The project has drawn criticism on several levels, the least of which is the message it might send to Iraqis and the rest of the world about America's long-term presence in Iraq.
"It's amazing — it's the only reconstruction project that seems to have run on time," said Brian Katulis, who worked in the Clinton State Department, and is now a public diplomacy expert with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
"On one hand, you have to keep our people safe and keep them comfortable when they are representing you and away from their families," he said. "But such a massive presence may send the wrong message."
Andy Fisher, spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., committee chairman, said he has heard no complaints from senators since hearings late last year.
"There is a requirement for that kind of presence at this time in Iraq," he said, noting conditions have made the security force at the embassy necessary. "I have heard no one in the Congress question having a large embassy for some time in Iraq."
But Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., the U.S House's lone libertarian, has criticized the size, scope and seeming permanency of the embassy, said his spokesman Jeff Deist.
"All of this indicates that we are farther and farther from leaving," he said.
"A lot of people think this is good, and the modern realities in a dangerous country call for it," Deist said of the large security force and fortified compound. "But why do we need to build a fortress if we believe we're building this peaceful, democratic society?"
Others say it is not only the size of the compound, but the location — smack in the middle of two business districts in Baghdad, in the Green Zone, among former dictator Saddam Hussein's legendary palaces — is a disruption for Iraqis as well as an eyesore and symbol of foreign influence in their fledging sovereign state.
"It's ridiculous," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin, a former consultant to the interim Coalition Provisional Authority, of the new embassy.
Rubin said he believes that the "smaller is better and small is more effective," and that the millions of dollars for the construction could go instead to aid for the Iraqis.
"If the State Department is trying to encourage commerce, then building [the embassy] in the very place that will guarantee to disrupt commerce" is counterproductive, he added.
If building such a large compound is inevitable, he said, then "you put it on the outskirts of the city where it won't annoy people."
Higgins, the State Department spokesman, defends the size, saying most of the 5,747-employee roster at the new embassy are from other U.S agencies — like the departments of Justice, Defense and Commerce — and would be there temporarily, assisting reconstruction and security efforts.
"I wouldn't read too much into the size other than the specifics I mentioned," Higgins added.
How big and how permanent the U.S. footprint in Iraq should be continues to be the ever looming question in Washington, D.C.
Recent reports have cited the construction of four "super bases" in Iraq, and military officials have said these large installations will eventually replace the smaller ones across the country, consolidating facilities for the time the U.S. military is needed there. Critics fear they will be there forever.
John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, said however one feels about the war, the embassy and the bases are now necessary to finishing the job. Thousands of military and civilian personnel are needed to help maintain security and help the Iraqis get a functional, fair government on its feet.
"We've got to put them somewhere … I mean, I think we're going to have a large presence there for some time to come," he said. As for the fortified embassy, he added, "with the security situation as such, you're not going to be able to lease office space down some side street. It's as simple as that."
But critics wonder how effective U.S. diplomats will be so cut off from the rest of the population — much like they are now in the heavily fortified Green Zone, four square miles now known as the "International Zone."
"When I was out there in 2003, there was a great deal of concern about us not being accessible to ordinary Iraqis," said Katulis, who worked in Iraq as a consultant for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. "You have to wonder how [the Iraqis] are perceiving this project."