WASHINGTON – It’s as big as Vatican City and makes the foreign embassies dotting the tree-lined streets of Washington, D.C., look like carriage houses, but the barely-finished U.S. embassy in Baghdad is already primed for expansion.
Due for completion in September, the $592 million campus is surrounded by concrete blast walls and features green grass gardens, palm-lined avenues and volleyball and basketball courts. Available to embassy employees are a PX, commissary, cinema, retail and shopping areas, restaurants, schools, a fire station, power and water treatment plants as well as telecommunications and wastewater treatment facilities.
Internet surfers on the Web last Thursday may have glimpsed some pictures of the massive complex that banks the Tigris River. In a brief security breach, the architectural firm that designed the project accidentally revealed on its company Web site 10 mock-ups of the overall layout, including the embassy itself, office annexes, the Marine Corps security post, a swimming pool, recreation center and the ambassador's and deputy ambassador's residences.
And with months still to pass before it opens, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate subcommittee in May that additional staffing and housing needs have forced officials to add more structures to the now 21-building site. She asked for an additional $50 million from Congress to make that happen.
“We do believe that the embassy compound was right-sized at the time that it was presented to the Congress,” Rice told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, the panel that oversees State Department funding. "There have been some additional issues since that time."
According to Dave Foley, spokesman at the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, more Americans are still working at the embassy than initially expected, mainly because the overarching security problem in Baghdad has slowed and complicated efforts to rebuild the country and help establish a functioning central government there.
"The State Department, with interagency consultation, is examining how best to accommodate this additional personnel," he said.
The new 104-acre embassy complex has been called a "city within a city" in the heart of Baghdad, resting in the area now referred to as the fortified Green Zone. As designed now, the 619 blast-proof apartments may not be enough to accommodate some of the estimated 4,000 regular employees, contractors and local Iraqis working for the embassy, plus congressional and other diplomatic visitors who visit the capital on a regular basis.
According to reports, State Department workers currently living in Baghdad are doubling up in trailers in the Green Zone with no extra blast protection. Living in a high security situation, personnel have been asked recently to wear helmets and flak jackets when walking around outside the buildings. The request followed an increased level of mortar attacks against the area in May and a homicide bombing inside a Green Zone cafeteria in April that killed eight people.
On May 19, all congregation outdoors was prohibited "due to the threat of indirect fire (IDF) against the embassy compound," according to a memo from the U.S. Mission in Iraq, reprinted in The Washington Post.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, responding to Rice's testimony, suggested that the administration has overstaffed the embassy without forethought of the workers' personal safety.
"This is another case where poor planning, skyrocketing costs and security concerns are colliding in the Bush administration's policies in Iraq, and we need to make adjustments," he said.
Foley said the department is making those adjustments, remains committed to its mission and wants the additional funding in part to help cover the costs of the temporary housing for staff.
The new embassy is expected to be the largest in the world, but with thousands on the embassy roster on temporary assignment from other agencies than the State Department, at least one national security analyst says the human resources dedicated to the Baghdad mission are over the top.
"I think it's ridiculous," Michael Rubin, a national security analyst with the American Enterprise Institute who makes frequent trips to Baghdad, said of the embassy space and recent reports that it will have to grow to accommodate the overflow.
Rubin said he is convinced that the more people who are brought in to work for the government, the more inefficient the bureaucracy will be and the more security will be required, draining resources that can be used elsewhere. He said without large security details, most embassy workers can't work outside the Green Zone anyway.
"If you have people who serve in that embassy but never step outside, they might as well go back and work from Washington," Rubin said.
No indication has come out of the State Department that it is seeking to reduce its numbers in Baghdad. If anything, reports in the last year indicate that officials are trying to boost recruitment from their ranks in Washington.
They have also been encouraging volunteers from other agencies who could help with the U.S efforts there. Since the war began, personnel in the Green Zone include people from the Defense, Justice and Commerce departments, and of course, the Central Intelligence Agency.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said the size of the embassy and the number of people working in it is not surprising, given the evolving security in Iraq and the scope of what the U.S. is trying to accomplish there.
"We're basically trying to put this country back together," he said, noting that a new ambassador is there with new ideas and a lot of work to do if the U.S ever wants to leave behind any semblance of stability.
"There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen — it's not pretty, it's not elegant, it's improvised," he said. The only alternative would be to start withdrawing diplomats if they can't be kept safe, or put them in danger. "Americans are willing to sacrifice a lot," said Pike, but aren't interested in "a short path to martyrdom."
Others point out the huge "footprint" the United States is forging in the heart of Baghdad, a capital once inhabited by late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and the message it sends to Iraqis who in surveys suggest they are uncomfortable with the prospect of a long-term American presence there.
Rubin pointed out the embassy property is smack in between two major shopping districts — the Mansoor and the Karada — making it a problem for both symbolic and practical reasons.
"You should have put (the embassy) on the edge of the city, where it does not disrupt the main business districts of the city," he said. "The symbolism is this is not an embassy, but a palace."
"We reject that criticism," Foley said, particularly complaints that when finished, the embassy will look more like a medieval fortress than anything else. He said that rather than palatial living and recreational quarters, the size mostly reflects modest one-bedroom apartments, necessary office space, warehouses, repair facilities and garages.
"It's a misunderstanding," Foley said. "I've been there, I've looked at it, you don't get the impression that it is such a huge thing."