Just inside the gateway of the new United States Embassy in Baghdad, a US Army lieutenant colonel acted as the diplomatic equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter, welcoming guests Monday afternoon to the dedication ceremony for the largest – and most expensive – American mission in the world.
But even if visitors missed the significance of such a high-ranking doorman, more than 300 feet of red carpet and several hundred Iraqi, American, and other international guests hammered home just how significant this ribbon-cutting ceremony is to the long-term American vision for Iraq.
The $592 million, 104-acre compound that will house at least 1,200 US government employees from 14 federal agencies is brick-and-mortar proof of the value American politicians place on their relationship with this Middle Eastern nation still in the throes of war.
An "embassy compound" might sound uninviting, especially considering that the US Embassy just moved to its new location from Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace. But the design is anything but. It's made up of beige buildings constructed of stone and draped with giant sunscreens, giving it the appearance of a college campus in the American southwest rather than making it feel like a military installation.
Despite present threats that remain for Americans in Iraq, the new facility does not differ drastically from other embassies in terms of its security precautions. It is, however, unique in its ability to be completely self-sustaining, with its own water well and power generator. It can also use city services if available.
But it wasn't just survivability that planners were thinking about when they constructed the embassy. Amid the government buildings, the State Department has built a schoolhouse. Although it's currently occupied by coalition forces representatives, embassy officials hope that one day, when the situation here normalizes, Iraq will be a family-friendly posting for diplomats. Just how far off that day is, embassy spokespeople are not willing to speculate.
For many Iraqis, the new compound represents the beginning of a shift in the US presence in Iraq from an occupation to a traditional diplomatic mission. Speaking over the phone, Saleem al-Jabouri, an Iraqi member of Parliament, says that before the recent security agreements, "We did not like the US Embassy and American troops in Iraq, but now that we have a formal relationship with them, we can deal with the Americans in the embassy."
While the US diplomatic relationship with Iraq has been on again, off again over the past 50 years, with the two nations breaking ties in 1967 and again in 1991, the new embassy seems to represent the ambition of both Iraqi and American leaders to establish lasting ties.
"I look with great confidence to the future of United States-Iraq relations. Today marks the beginning of a new page in those relations," said the former US ambassador to Iraq and the current US deputy secretary of State, John Negroponte, at the ceremony. "America and Iraq stand shoulder to shoulder as confident equals, working together in friendship and in common purpose."