State Department Fends off Criticism Over Massive Baghdad Embassy

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The State Department vowed Tuesday to hold contractors accountable for delays and construction problems with the massive new U.S. Embassy in Iraq, saying it would not pay for "a turkey."

As the U.S. government orders major repairs to correct deficiencies at the Vatican-size compound in Baghdad, the department sought to fend off mounting congressional criticism of the project and its broader operations in Iraq, including the use of private security firms to protect diplomats.

The embassy, which will be the world's largest diplomatic mission, had been scheduled to be completed in September, but last week officials said it was badly behind and might not open for business until well into 2008. It will also cost nearly $150 million more than its original $600 million price tag, they said.

The delays, charges of shoddy workmanship and fraud by the main contractor have caused growing concerns in Congress, where two top Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Tom Lantos and Henry Waxman, the chairmen of the House International Relations and House Oversight and Government Reform committees, are demanding answers and a new timeline for the embassy's opening.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday he was unable to provide a revised date for the completion of the project.

"We don't have an answer," he told reporters, adding that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was pursuing the matter. "I can't tell you when it will open up."

But McCormack insisted the repairs would be made and that the contractor in question, First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co., would be required to finish the embassy for the $592 million it agreed to build it for. At the same time, he noted that changes ordered to the original design would cost an additional $144 million.

"We're not going to buy ourself a turkey here," he said. "We're going to make sure that we get what we paid for."

McCormack's comments came in response to questions about the construction posed by Waxman in a 10-page letter sent to Rice on Tuesday and a similar letter sent last week to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte by Lantos.

Both lawmakers noted that they had been assured, in July and again in August, that the embassy was "on schedule and on budget" for September completion and that staff would begin moving in "shortly thereafter."

McCormack maintained that while he could not offer a new opening date, the project was now only nine days overdue and that Rice was willing to accept a reasonable delay, particularly on such a large compound.

"She's willing to cut everybody involved in the construction project some slack if it falls within a reasonable period of time and it falls within the normal practices of opening up a large embassy compound around the world if it's consistent with our past practices," he said.

Her patience, however, is not infinite.

"There will come a point if the embassy isn't opened up and doesn't meet the standards that have been required of the contractor, then you have a problem," McCormack said. "I can't tell you when that point is going to be."

In his letter, which McCormack said he had not read, Waxman details multiple failures of electrical wiring and fire sprinklers that have been pointed out by State Department building inspectors.

An internal Sept. 4 inspection report cited by Waxman says the "entire (fire suppression) installation is unacceptable" and notes widespread deficiencies with electrical wiring.

McCormack said he could not address the specifics outlined in the letter.

Embassy employees have been working and living in a makeshift complex in and around a Saddam-era palace that the Iraqis have said they want back quickly.

The temporary quarters are cramped and increasingly dangerous. Many employees live in trailers that are not fully protected from mortars fired from outside the Green Zone.

Insurgents have gotten better at firing into the heavily guarded zone in attacks this year have killed several people. The new complex is supposed to be safer, with additional blast walls and other protection.

McCormack also said he could not speak to allegations by Waxman that First Kuwaiti had been involved in illegal kickback schemes on a prior project for the U.S. government that should have raised concerns when the State Department hired the company for the embassy job.

Waxman has been a persistent critic of the State Department and its operations in Iraq, including its dependence on private security contractors like Blackwater USA to protect diplomats and refusal to divulge details of corruption in the Iraqi government.

"Increasingly, it appears that the State Department's efforts in Iraq are in disarray," he wrote in the letter.

McCormack shot back when asked about that remark. "That is just a ridiculous statement," he said.