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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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The US government cleared the new Baghdad Embassy for occupancy last week, with the embassy's 700 employees and up to 250 military personnel expected to move in over the month of May, according to Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

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$1 billion a year to operate

The $740 million compound – expected to cost more than $1 billion a year to operate – was originally expected to cost $600 million to build and was to open in September 2007. Design changes and faulty construction caused repeated delays.

Congress learned last fall of problems with the site's electrical system, and early this year reports surfaced of significant problems with the fire-fighting systems.

Nevertheless, embassy personnel have been anxious for the complex, with more than 600 blast-resistant apartments, to open and give them some refuge from the mortar fire that has increasingly targeted the Green Zone this year. Last month, a mortar slammed into one of the unfortified trailers where personnel now sleep, killing an American civilian contractor. At least two US soldiers have died from rocket fire on the Green Zone since then.

But even the embassy's opening may not be assuaging diplomats' concerns about assignments in Iraq. Last week, the State Department warned that it may start ordering employees to serve at the embassy next year if more volunteers do not come forward for the 300 posts expected to open.

The State Department announcement follows a similar warning last fall of a shortfall of volunteers for about 50 Iraq positions. Candidates were eventually found without any compulsory assignments for 2008, but the prospect of ordered assignments to a war zone caused tensions at the department.

Such challenges to the full manning of the new embassy have yet to reach Iraqi ears. Still, some Iraqis who condemn the imagery of the imposing new compound say they are even more critical of what, in an indirect way, it also tells Iraqis about their own leadership.

"What does it say to Iraqis that we cannot walk along a beautiful part of the river in our own land because of this big American place?" says Qasim Sabti, an Iraqi artist and Baghdad gallery owner. "But it shows us something else about our own government," he adds. "At least the Americans could build this thing, but we Iraqis have no new buildings or streets, everything is destroyed – but still the corruption is so great that the money goes into pockets before it can build something new."

Other Iraqis say the embassy highlights the long-term interests the US has in both Iraq and the region.

"If it is so big, it is a reflection of the size of the designs they have for Iraq and the Middle East," says Maimoon al-Khaldi, an actor and professor at Baghdad's Fine Arts Academy. "It is a sign of their energy agenda and of their security agenda in this region," he adds. "This building faces the Iraqis, yes, but also the Iranians they have declared to be their enemies."

Mr. Jabbar says the Americans "surely have a right and duty to protect their delegation here." But he says he still wouldn't have built something so large.

"That is too much of a symbol," he says. "It sends a message to the Iraqis that says, 'Be careful, we removed Saddam Hussein and we can remove what has come after him anytime we want.'"