updated 10/5/2007 12:40:12 AM ET 2007-10-05T04:40:12

The opening of a mammoth, $600 million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which had been planned for last month, has now been delayed well into next year, U.S. officials said Thursday.

The Vatican-sized compound, which will be the world's largest diplomatic mission, has been beset by construction and logistical problems.

"They are substantially behind at this point," and it would be surprising if any offices or living quarters could be occupied before the end of the year, one official told The Associated Press.

Problems identified so far are related to the complex's physical plant, including electrical systems, and do not pose a security risk, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The official also said the delays would have no direct cost to taxpayers because contractor First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co. had agreed to deliver for a set $592 million price.

That official, and another who works in Iraq, said it had been clear for some time that the promised September completion date could not be met and that State Department officials had been overly optimistic in insisting the timeline was realistic.

Official: No new major delay
State Department spokesmen have in the past played down construction problems at the embassy and attributed them to the normal hurdles faced in building such a large complex.

Deputy spokesman Tom Casey said Thursday he was not aware of any new major delay in the opening of the embassy that will sit on a 104-acre site and have working space for about 1,000 people.

The U.S. official said the complex was supposed to be substantially completed in August. The first move of offices or personnel from temporary quarters in the fortified Green Zone had been planned for this fall.

Embassy employees have been working and living in a makeshift complex in and around a Saddam-era palace that the Iraqis have said they want back quickly.

The temporary quarters are cramped and increasingly dangerous. Many employees live in trailers that are not fully protected from mortars fired from outside the Green Zone.

Insurgents have gotten better at firing into the heavily guarded zone in attacks this year have killed several people. The new complex is supposed to be safer, with additional blast walls and other protection.

Explanations demanded
In a letter sent to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on Thursday, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, demanded explanations for what was holding up the project.

"I am writing to express my serious concern that our new embassy compound in Iraq is apparently facing significant contractor deficiencies that will delay its opening for weeks or even months past its promised delivery date of September 2007," Lantos wrote.

"These delays and deficiencies undermine the security and the living standards of the almost 1,000 foreign service officers and other embassy staff that will be housed at the Baghdad embassy, and they raise serious concerns about Department of State contracting for new embassy construction in other locations as well," he said.

Lantos noted that his committee had been assured on numerous occasions by State Department officials, notably by retired Army Maj. Gen. Charles Williams, who oversees embassy construction projects around the world, that the construction would be completed on time.

"Why was the committee assured as late as August that the embassy would open on time when these obviously significant defects existed?" he asked.

Casey, the deputy spokesman, could not say if Negroponte had seen Lantos' letter.

Fraud alleged
Another influential lawmaker, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee, has harshly criticized the State Department and its inspector general for failing to follow up on allegations of malfeasance and fraud by the embassy contractors.

The new questions come as the department is struggling to deal with the furor over a Sept. 16 incident in which private security guards protecting an embassy convoy were involved in a shooting in Baghdad.

At least 13 Iraqi civilians were killed in the incident, which has sparked Iraqi anger and prompted several separate investigations into not only the shooting, but the State Department's security practices and reliance on private contractors in Iraq.

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