What's Happening With the Baghdad Embassy?
September Completion Date Passed, State Department Yet to Schedule Transfer
Widespread construction flaws and substandard work have delayed completion of the US State Department’s mammoth new $592-million embassy in Baghdad, numerous sources familiar with the project claim, despite previous official statements that the ambitious fortified compound would be finished in September.
Touted as the largest embassy in the world with over two dozen fortified buildings, the 104-acre compound spans an area equal to two-thirds the size of the National Mall.
Iraqslogger reported buzz last week that the project has so many problems that State Department is considering as much as $100 million in new spending to bring the new embassy compound up to snuff.
Those charges now seem to be partially corroborated by the Associated Press and Reuters. Both news agencies report that the sprawling, Vatican-sized embassy compound 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.
Reuters reports that in a letter to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos said such delays raised concerns over the adequacy of the department's management of overseas building operations.
"These delays and deficiencies undermine the security and the living standards of almost 1,000 foreign service officers and other embassy staff that will be housed at the Baghdad Embassy," wrote the California lawmaker, who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Asked about the completion date, State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson stressed recently that the embassy project is nearly finished but that no determined time has been set for ribbon cutting. She said the official handover to the State Department and final inspection -- known as “accreditation” -- has yet to be scheduled. Those things, says Thompson, won’t take place until the project is deemed complete and State Department officials have combed through the compound “with a white glove.”
The State Department spokeswoman also said that no formal requests for additional funding have been made although “the project is in a constant state of evaluation.”
In July, the State Departments director for US embassy construction assured Congress in July that the contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, would be completing the project in September.
“We have received numerous accolades as to the extremely high quality of construction,” Charles E. Williams told the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on July 26. “It is among the best.... We are slated to complete the project in September of this year and personnel can begin to move into offices and residences shortly thereafter.”
But some say that officials now may be scrambling to adjust the move-in schedule, which could be well into 2008, according to once source who insists that government inspectors have found “widespread and serious flaws” in the project and have refused to allow occupancy of the new compound until the problems are repaired.
Some of alleged troubling issues include poor water filtration, weak blast walls, electrical problems, sinking foundations and substandard water lines in the fire extinguishers. If true, these issues could take six months to address, the source said who added that if more spending is called for, the sum may be veiled as new additions to the project, but, in fact, also cover up defective and incomplete work that “will be hidden forever.”
The Associated Press quotes a State Department official saying there will be no additional funding and that “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.”
The project has come under increasing scrutiny of US Congress and an investigation by the US Justice Department into allegations of fraud and labor abuse.
The State Department’s own inspector general also entered into the fray just days before being accused of ignoring allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse related to the project. The inspector genera was also singled out for “highly irregular procedures in exonerating the prime contractor, First Kuwaiti Trading Company, of charges of labor trafficking,” by House Committee of Government Oversight and Reform chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat.
Sources say that Inspector General Howard Krongard opened an investigation of the embassy and First Kuwaiti after ignoring complaints for more than a year only days before receiving Waxman’s September 18 letter. “The investigation opened on a Friday and people were working until 9 pm that night,” once source said.
The following week, Krongard then made a personal trip to Afghanistan and then Baghdad, sources said.
In January 2007, the Department of Justice contacted Krongard’s office to request assistance investigating allegations of misconduct by First Kuwaiti, according to Waxman, who quoted an internal email stating that "the allegations are basically contract fraud and public ... corruption." According to the e-mail, the public corruption allegations implicated a senior State Department offrcial overseeing the embassy construction project.
State Department project manager in Baghdad, Mary French, and First Kuwaiti have not responded to emails about the clams of faulty work, however some familiar with the project said the allegations may be overblown and reflect simple delays in finishing the details.
“No US embassy has ever been finished on time,” said one former project manager of the Baghdad embassy project under contract with the State Department, Juvencio Lopez. “First Kuwaiti is a first rate company” and “had a first-rate team in place.”
Lopez said two inspections of blast walls around the perimeter of the compound during construction by State Department inspectors had no “negative observations” although one perimeter fence needed replacement because it “just gave out.”
But even Lopez speculated that the project will not be complete until well into next year. He said he recently met with Verizon on installing communications systems but that the company did not anticipate starting work until January 2008. On Thursday, he said he had been told the embassy was near completion and the keys would be handed over to the State Department within two weeks. He said a celebration was planned for the opening in Washington, DC.
Another worker for the embassy subcontractor Hardline Installation, which installed security doors and windows, said talk about the delays are not surprising because of the security environment. “I know that the building is behind on the target opening day,” he said. “The unsafe work is probably due to the fact that there are thousands of workers there from India, Philippines, etc., and they probably were not watched closely enough.”
One former labor foreman claims that First Kuwaiti employed 2,000 to 3,000 migrant low-paid laborers from South Asia and Africa – many more than were necessary if they had been skilled construction workers, he said. “Some were just goat herders from Pakistan and didn’t even know they were going to work in Baghdad.”
The new embassy project, located along the dusty banks of the Tigris River inside the US-controlled Green Zone, has lagged behind its projected finish dates in the past. The original target date was set for June 2007, but was first extended to July and then again to September. Some blame routine matters exacerbated by the war-time environment that delay shipments of needed materials and periodic interruptions caused by incoming rockets and mortars.
David Phinney is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He can be contacted at email@example.com