Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki officially reopened Iraq’s bombed foreign ministry on Wednesday in what foreign and Iraqi diplomats said was proof that the country would not be defeated by truck bombs or terrorists.
As Mr. Maliki cut a red ribbon at the entrance, 42 white doves were released in the air – one for each of the ministry staff killed when a truck packed with two tons of explosives collapsed part of the building in August 2009. More than 560 others were wounded in the attack - the first in a wave of bombings targeting government ministries.
“The best answer to the terrorists to the insurgents, is to rise from the ashes again – that is the symbolism,” said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, speaking after a ceremony in which Iraq’s symphony orchestra played for diplomats, government ministers, and ministry officials.
The building, which sustained extensive damage, was repaired almost entirely with Iraqi expertise and labor in a record nine months. Ministry engineers and workers started repairing the damage as soon as the wounded were evacuated. Mr. Zebari himself held a press conference in the ruined building the day after the bombing to show they were still there.
“This ministry has not stopped working even for one day,” Zebari told the dignitaries assembled in a renovated hall glowing with gold-colored sconces and flocked wallpaper.
“I don’t think anyone would have expected – certainly not the terrorists, that within nine months you would have this thing back on its feet,” US Ambassador Chris Hill told the Monitor. “It does speak to the real determination of the Iraqi people…there is a spirit that people who haven’t lived here can’t really understand.”
Amid the pride that the building had been reconstructed in record time, there was a pragmatism that the country is far from safe.
Rebuilt and bomb-resistant
Iraqi engineers, working against equipment and material shortages, have turned the 10-story building into the most advanced bomb-resistant ministry building outside Baghdad's Green Zone.
Many of those injured in the bombing and in attacks on other Iraqi government ministries were seriously hurt by flying glass. Windows in this building have been reinforced with plastic coating and some are made with bullet-proof glass. The walls have been reinforced, and for extra security, a mesh curtain (invented by Iraqis and installed to stop flying glass shards) hangs in many of the offices. “It’s patented,” says chief engineer Zaid Izaldean, who oversaw the renovation.
The original building was built by a Japanese firm in the 1980s and the blueprints were not available. So, Iraqi engineers took apart one of the interlocking arches in the building and reverse engineered it to build new arches to look like the original.
“There is a sense that things cannot be done in Iraq because of the bureaucracy because of the corruption, because of the inefficiency - that we can’t do it on our own unless there is foreign aid to help and assist,” said Zebari as he showed two reporters several rooms where walls and ceilings had collapsed that now have the look of an upscale hotel lobby. “We wanted to prove we can do it, we can rely on ourselves.”
Zebari, who had originally blamed the government for failing to secure the ministry, says those dangers have not been eliminated. Attacks on the German and Egyptian embassies in March were among the latest in a series of bombings since last year.
“We have some flaws in the intelligence system, in the coordination between different agencies, and they are trying to learn from their lessons but the events after all this proved that these flaws are still there,” he says.
Almost 10 percent of the foreign ministry staff was killed or wounded in the August attack, carried out by a truck bomb that passed through several checkpoints and was on city streets in contravention of a ban on trucks. For the survivors, the ceremony and its message of resiliency was particularly meaningful.
Lina Omar, director of protocol, had only been back at the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad for a month (after five years at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington) when the suicide bomber struck. “The building fell on top of us,” she says. She spent 1-1/2 months in a hospital in Irbil, Iraq, recovering from her injuries .
“We went through a lot – through so many wars,” she says. “If we continue this progress and the dream that we have, Iraqis will never give up.”
“In nine months. we managed to renovate our ministry and this is the best reply to those who want the evil destruction of our country,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi. “It is an example of when people get together they can make miracles.”