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New U.S. embassy in Iraq short on housing

The new U.S. Embassy complex does not have enough fortified living quarters for hundreds of diplomats and other workers, who must remain temporarily in trailers.
Iraq Diplomats in Danger
In file photo, a portion of the new U.S. embassy under construction is seen from across the Tigris river in Baghdad.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The new U.S. Embassy complex does not have enough fortified living quarters for hundreds of diplomats and other workers, who must remain temporarily in trailers without special rooftop protection against mortars and rockets, government officials have told The Associated Press.

Sorting out the housing crunch and funding could further delay moving all personnel into the compound until next year and exposes shortcomings in the planning for America's more than $700 million diplomatic hub in Iraq.

The issue of "hardened" housing in the U.S.-protected Green Zone has gained renewed prominence since Shiite militias resumed steady attacks on the enclave in late March as part of backlash to an Iraqi-led crackdown.

More than a dozen people have been killed in the Green Zone in the latest waves of attacks, including a U.S. civilian government worker whose housing trailer was hit.

At one point — during the heaviest barrages early this month — the State Department ordered all its Baghdad employees to wear body armor and other protective gear while outside buildings in the Green Zone, which also contains the British Embassy, key Iraqi government offices and other international compounds.

No sleeping in trailers
Staffers also were ordered not to sleep in their trailers, and hundreds of cots were placed inside the current embassy — a former Saddam Hussein palace.

The State Department took legal possession of the new embassy site last week — a step that had been delayed for months by construction problems — and the move could begin next month.

But there is not enough blast-resistant housing at the new site for "hundreds" of embassy workers, said Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management. One reason is because staffing levels are more than double what was projected in 2005 when the compound was being designed.

The precise figure for the looming housing shortfall was not disclosed. Currently, the trailers behind the embassy hold more than 1,000 people including diplomats, embassy employees, translators, civilian support staff and others. Private security contractors generally have their own housing.

Apartments being split in two
The new embassy compound also needs to absorb about 100 workers from the State Department's aid division — which currently has a separate facility — and others from the U.S. military command staff.

To meet the demand, many apartments inside the embassy compound are being divided into two units.

Capital Hill officials with knowledge of the embassy plans told the AP that the State Department is working to secure funding for 600 to 700 trailers — with overhead protection — to be located at the new compound.

But they said it could be a year or more before everyone can move into the compound. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the embassy plans.

That means a significant portion of embassy personnel will remain in the trailers behind the former Saddam palace. Some trailers have sandbags, but no strengthened roof coverings that are common at the embassies of other nations and the villas of many private companies.

One senior U.S. official who spent more than a year in Baghdad described the living situation as "Russian roulette" for staffers in the trailers that could resolved with a relatively small investment. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was not authorized to speak to media.

Kennedy said money was not budgeted for overhead protection for the trailers — estimated at between $15 million and $20 million — because they were deemed "a temporary installation."

"The permanent installations are at the new embassy compound. So that is where we have put our funding," he said.

Protections won't include rooftop shielding
A senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the trailers at the palace will receive some "enhanced protection" but that it would not include overhead shielding. The official, who was not authorized to speak to journalists, would not provide more details.

It's left some embassy staffers bitter.

An American diplomat — who hunkered down during the wave of attacks in recent weeks — called it a "difficult pill to swallow." The diplomat asked not to be named, lacking authorization to speak to media.

The request for funding for the reinforced trailers at the new embassy appears to be on track, but it's met with some grumbling in Washington from lawmakers who want to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the state and foreign operations subcommittee of the House appropriations committee, said "it is critical that the embassy in Iraq keep our diplomatic and development personnel safe."

But Lowey, a Democrat from New York, said the diplomatic mission must concentrate on "hastening the withdrawal of military forces" and helping bolster Iraq's government.

"The administration's recent proposal to reconfigure the embassy would delay both of these goals," she said.

Steven Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents State Department employees, said the group wants the new embassy compound to stop using the aluminum trailers.

"U.S. diplomats who have volunteered in large numbers for combat zone assignments in Baghdad for the past five years have every right to expect living quarters that afford appropriate security," he said.