Iraqis see red as U.S. opens world's biggest embassy
The 104-acre, 21-building enclave was cleared for occupancy recently and will open next month.
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Like the infamous Boston highway project, the embassy is a mammoth development that is overbudget, overdue, and casts a whiff of corruption.
For many Iraqis, though, the sand-and-ochre-colored compound peering out across the city from a reedy stretch of riverfront within the fortified Green Zone is an unsettling symbol both of what they have become in the five years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and of what they have yet to achieve.
"It is a symbol of occupation for the Iraqi people, that is all," says Anouar, a Baghdad graduate student who thought it was risk enough to give her first name. "We see the size of this embassy and we think we will be part of the American plan for our country and our region for many, many years."
The 104-acre, 21-building enclave – the largest US Embassy in the world, similar in size to Vatican City in Rome – is often described as a "castle" by Iraqis, but more in the sense of the forbidden and dominating than of the alluring and liberating.
"We all know this big yellow castle, but its main purpose, it seems, is the security of the Americans who will live there," says Sarah, a university sophomore who also declined to give her last name for reasons of personal safety. "I heard that no one else can ever reach it."
Among the Iraqi elites who have suffered so much in the chaos of the post-Hussein period – the professors, doctors, architects, and artists – the impact of the new American giant is often expressed more symbolically but sometimes using the same terms.
Castles in the sand
"Saddam had his big castles; they symbolized his power and were places to be feared, and now we have the castle of the power that toppled him," says Abdul Jabbar Ahmed, a vice dean for political sciences at Baghdad University. "If I am the ambassador of the USA here I would say, 'Build something smaller that doesn't stand out so much, it's too important that we avoid these negative impressions.' "
Yet while the new embassy may be the largest in the world, it is not in its design and presence unlike others the US has built around the world in a burst of overseas construction since the bombings of US missions in the 1980s and '90s. Efforts to provide the 12,000 American diplomats working overseas a secure environment were redoubled following the 9/11 attacks.
Designed according to what are called the "Inman standards" – the results of a 1985 commission on secure embassy construction headed by former National Security Agency head Bobby Inman – recent embassies have been built as fortified compounds away from population centers and surrounded by high walls.
In the case of larger embassies in the most dangerous environments, as in Baghdad, secure housing is included, along with some of the amenities of home – restaurants, gyms, pools, cinemas, shopping – that can give the compound the air of an enclave.