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Iraqi Embassy upgrades D.C. digs

Iraq may be facing a deadly civil war, but the Iraqi government is initiating major, costly repairs to its diplomatic building in Washington, D.C., and expanding its real estate holdings here.
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Iraq may be facing a deadly civil war, but the Iraqi government is initiating major, costly repairs to its diplomatic building in Washington and expanding its real estate holdings here.

The latest Iraqi government purchase for its U.S. mission is a $5.8 million mansion at 3421 Massachusetts Ave. NW in Observatory Circle, across the street from Vice President Cheney's official residence. The three-story, 1920 Tudor-style structure, with more than 7,000 square feet of space, will serve as Iraq's temporary embassy during renovations to its fading Dupont Circle mission. Plans are to eventually turn the Dupont Circle building into a cultural center for the exhibition of Iraqi art.

The mansion comes with bright skylights, inset lighting fixtures, a top-floor kitchenette with a built-in espresso machine, new hardwood floors and soft pistachio carpeting up the winding stairs. There are heated floors, a firefighting system, speakers for music throughout the building, and spacious bathrooms, one with a Jacuzzi.

"We have bathrooms coming out of our ears," said Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie, inspecting the new digs.

A Washington design and restoration company, Skynear and Co., painstakingly repaired the building after a 2004 fire, replicating almost every detail. Original plaster moldings were recast and French chandeliers imported to replace the originals. "A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it," said Lynn Skynear. "We think we resurrected it back from the dead."

The Iraqi government bought the building in October.

Overseeing the effort is Sumaidaie, an electrical engineer by training, a poet and Islamic art connoisseur by inclination. His soon-to-be-vacated Dupont Circle office is a study in good lighting and precision. There is chaos in Iraq, but his working space exudes maximum control: a sleek computer screen, a yellow pad, Mont Blanc pens in a wooden case, rows of rulers, cellphones.

"It is a tiny part of what I do here," he said last week, looking up from design plans spread over a desk buffed to gleaming perfection. "Bear with me, I have to watch this," he said as he watched President Bush, on a vast television screen, speak about the importance of success in Iraq.

Asked about spending oil revenue on embassy buildings while Iraq is in the throes of war, Sumaidaie turned off the television's sound. "Rebuilding is part of our recovery, regaining normalcy is part of our recovery," he replied. "It is building, not destroying."

Sumaidaie is the first Iraqi ambassador to the United States since Mohamed al-Mashat fled to Canada in January 1991 before the start of the Persian Gulf War. His hands are full, with requests for media interviews, meetings with U.S. officials and lobbying a newly critical Congress, in addition to the minutiae of sifting through plans submitted by five local companies vying for the embassy's renovation project. The embassy also tends to the local Iraqi community and is developing consular offices in other major American cities.

"I believe every person in charge of something should do his best," Sumaidaie said. "I am doing the best for Iraq from where I am sitting."

Sumaidaie has even bigger real estate expansion plans, once peace descends on Iraq: a new facility in a prime location in Washington that would be designed by one of Iraq's internationally renowned architects, such as Iraq-born, Britain-based Zaha Hadid. The Dupont Circle embassy would then become an Iraqi museum.

On this day, however, the daily reports of casualties, both Iraqi and American, are topmost in this thoughts.

After a recent visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he said, "These great young men and women are heroes, yet their lives will never be the same. Each one of their sacrifices is a personal tragedy. This has been a joint effort, like a baptism of fire. We will get to the other side of this war, hopefully."

Repairing Iraq’s image
In the meantime, he wants to repair Iraq's image in Washington -- or at least its public facade. After 15 years of neglect, the red-brick embassy off Dupont Circle is in disrepair, with corroding pipes, peeling gold-leaf ceilings and rusty wiring.

To repair the Dupont Circle building will take millions. Sumaidaie is currently soliciting bids. Once the renovation is underway, the Iraqi mission will decamp to the posh new quarters at Observatory Circle.

The new facility sits amid some of the city's major religious centers: across Massachusetts Avenue from St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, next to a construction site for a Buddhist temple, and five blocks from the Islamic Center of Washington. The towers of Washington National Cathedral can be seen nearby.

But the colorful history of 3421 seems more earthly than divine.

The building became the embassy of Sudan in 1961, during the Kennedy administration. When Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, the mansion became its embassy. In the mid-1980s, at the peak of demonstrations against apartheid, South Africa moved part of its embassy there. In the early 1990s, Kazakhstan launched its U.S. diplomatic mission there after gaining independence from the former Soviet Union.

The most recent previous occupant was the diplomatic mission of Ivory Coast, which has since moved to a new building. During its years at the address, Ivory Coast endured a bloody civil war. In February 2004, days after the Ivorians moved out, the building was damaged by an electrical fire.

In addition to his other duties, Sumaidaie is collecting works by Iraqi artists to exhibit in the embassy's buildings, wise investments for the future, he said.

"It will take a long time for us to heal," he said. "I do believe that giving helps healing, doing something positive. It is the antidote to destruction. In the teeth of the most horrendous violence, there are people out there doing their jobs. This is the best way to deal with fear, a constructive way out. It is one of the ways of healing."