/ 10 October 2007

New US embassy in Baghdad riddled with problems

Shoddy construction work, safety lapses, kickbacks, internal disputes and ballooning costs — the new United States embassy complex in Baghdad is mired in a deluge of problems, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the frontline of fire from lawmakers.

Three months after the State Department confidently told Congress that the world’s biggest US embassy would be completed on schedule in September 2007, officials are now saying that it would be delayed indefinitely, with one report saying by more than a year.

A multitude of questions have been raised over the safety of the complex, budgeted originally at about $600-million.

Based on inspections conducted days before its scheduled completion, the fire service mains are deficient, there is no reliable automatic fire sprinkler system coverage in any of the compound’s 21 buildings and none of the fire alarm detection systems were ready for testing, a State Department report said.

The ”entire installation is not acceptable”, said the report on the embassy’s fire suppression system.

Aside from allegations of substandard work, the prime contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, is linked to bribery and overcharging claims, which a lawmaker monitoring government spending said raised ”red flags” well before the contract was awarded.

”These should be inescapable warnings about the wisdom of entrusting such a crucial project to First Kuwaiti,” Henry Waxman, the Democratic head of the House of Representatives oversight and government reform committee, said in a letter to Rice on Tuesday.

”Now the committee is learning that the embassy project, which is apparently being built by a contractor with a record of bribery and poor performance, has serious construction deficiencies,” said Waxman, a three-decade House veteran.

Waxman has also been a thorn on the State Department’s side, having moved to expose weaknesses in the supervision of Blackwater, a private security firm in Baghdad whose trigger happy ways have angered Iraqi leaders.

The firm’s guards are accused of having deliberately fired on Iraqi civilians, killing 17, last month — one of the estimated 200 shootings they have been implicated in, according to a Congress probe.

”Increasingly, it appears that the State Department’s efforts in Iraq are in disarray,” Waxman said in the letter to Rice, citing the department’s ”exceptionally lax” oversight of Blackwater and ”serious questions” about its effectiveness in combating corruption in Iraq.

The charges were not taken lightly by Rice’s spokesperson.

”You know, that is just a ridiculous statement. I’m sorry,” said State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack.

To allegations of shoddy construction work, he said they were actually ”punch list items”, very common during the inspection of large and complex construction projects that needed correction or modification.

McCormack did not dispute a Washington Post report last week that said that the cost of the embassy project would increase by $144-million from the budgeted $592-million.

”It’s not a cost overrun. It’s an additional contract requirement,” he said, pointing out that it was for additional secure office space for civilian and military personnel, and accommodations for additional civilian personnel.

He could not give a new date of completion for the embassy project.

”I can’t tell you that it won’t be in the near future, but I also can’t give you a date,” he said.

The project has been complicated by a dispute between the US ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and the top Washington-based official charged with overseeing the project, the Post reported.

That official, James Golden, had been barred from entering Iraq by Crocker because he allegedly disobeyed embassy orders during an investigation of a worker’s death, it quotes sources as saying.

US embassy staff now operate from a crowded palace used by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Waxman said his committee was firmly assured by the State Department in July that there would be no delays even after the panel had raised allegations of substandard work.

Democratic lawmaker Tom Lantos, the head of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has written a letter to Rice’s deputy, John Negroponte, seeking an explanation for the delay and building deficiencies.

The problems, he said, ”undermine the security” of the almost 1 000 foreign service officers and other embassy staff who will be housed at the new embassy, which is to be heavily fortified to withstand mortar and rocket attacks. – Sapa-AFP