US Takes Over New Baghdad Embassy

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States has taken ownership of the mammoth new, heavily fortified embassy in Baghdad after months of delay, the State Department said Monday.

The government had held off on taking legal possession of the $736 million complex until construction problems and delays were resolved. An order signed Monday covers the main embassy building but not additional office space now set aside for the top U.S. ground commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

The "certificate of occupancy" means the U.S. government can now move into 27 buildings inside the heavily protected compound inside the Green Zone, where a recent spate of insurgent attacks has killed at least two U.S. soldiers and two American civilians.

The move is expected to take place in late May or early June.

The certificate "attests to substantial completion of construction, as well as successful testing and validation of the major buildings and communications systems," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

The new embassy will be the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, with fortified working space for 1,000 people and living quarters for several hundred on a 104-acre site.

But the project has been beset by construction, logistical and security hitches that caused major delays beyond its planned September 2007 opening date and angered some lawmakers.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told reporters last week that construction was complete at the Vatican-sized compound, which will replace the current embassy quarters in a Saddam Hussein-era palace.

"It's been a difficult few weeks, rockets are bouncing off your buildings, and maintaining focus can be an occasional challenge," Crocker said.

"We will begin moving into the new embassy - some of the office space and the apartments - probably the end of next month, the beginning of June, so that will certainly improve quality of life and provide some added protection," he told reporters.

The rise in insurgent attacks prompted the embassy late last month to order personnel not to leave reinforced buildings and to wear helmets and body armor if they must go outside. A shortage of space in fortified areas has forced some diplomats to sleep at the new embassy site despite the lack of occupancy approvals.

"We worry a lot less about formal safety certifications and a lot more about ensuring people have a place to sleep where rockets couldn't get at them," Crocker said.

In October, the department conceded that a host of problems, including major malfunctions in the complex's physical plant, including electrical and water distribution systems, would push back the embassy opening at least until this spring. Some of those problems have since recurred.

Some of the deficiencies have been blamed on shoddy work by the company hired to build the project, First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co., for $592 million. Changes to the original design have pushed the cost up by $144 million.

First Kuwaiti has been accused of tricking foreign laborers into working on the embassy, mistreating them and paying $200,000 in kickbacks in return for two unrelated Army contracts in Iraq. The company denies the charges.

Congressional Democrats have launched investigations into whether the State Department had adequate control of the project, which has been complicated by security concerns, including a September incident in which private Blackwater USA guards are accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians while protecting an embassy convoy.

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AP Diplomatic Writers Anne Gearan and Barry Schweid contributed to this report.

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