Rep. Waxman Questions U.S. Baghdad Embassy's Readiness

Federal officials last year certified as complete the new $736 million U.S. embassy in Iraq, even though the mammoth complex was still plagued by construction defects, a senior House Democrat charged Friday.

Rep. Henry Waxman, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called on the State Department to respond in a March 12 hearing and demanded they release internal documents related to the project.

Waxman cites a Feb. 13 independent assessment of the embassy that found "major" infrastructure problems and "critical and non-critical" deficiencies in most buildings, despite a December 2007 certification by a senior project official that the embassy was complete.

"These inspection reports raise many questions about whether the embassy is safe for occupation and why the State Department certified the project as substantially complete in December," Waxman wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said the agency takes seriously Waxman's request and characterized the embassy as an ongoing project.

"We certainly have no intention of taking occupancy or establishing occupancy in a facility that doesn't fully meet all our standards," Casey told reporters.

Casey said he couldn't estimate when the project might be complete, but said the goal is to finish as quickly as possible.

For many congressional Democrats, the U.S. embassy in Iraq has become a symbol for the Bush administration's lax oversight of the war. The compound had been due to be completed in September but has been beset by construction, logistical and security hitches.

Difficulties included major malfunctions in the complex's physical plant, including electrical and water distribution systems, some of which are blamed on shoddy work by the company hired to build the project, First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co., for $592 million.

Changes to the original design have pushed the cost up by an additional $144 million.

In October, the State Department conceded that a host of problems would push back the embassy opening at least until the spring of 2008 despite previous assurances to Congress by retired Army Gen. Charles E. Williams, who was overseeing the project as director of the State Department's Overseas Buildings Operations, that the construction was on schedule.

Williams retired last year. In his place — and the likely candidate to testify before Waxman's committee — is Richard Shinnick, a former managing director within Williams' office.