Construction Woes Add to Fears at Embassy in Iraq

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

U.S. diplomats in Iraq, increasingly fearful over their personal safety after recent mortar attacks inside the Green Zone, are pointing to new delays and mistakes in the U.S. Embassy construction project in Baghdad as signs that their vulnerability could grow in the months ahead.

A toughly worded cable sent from the embassy to State Department headquarters on May 29 highlights a cascade of building and safety blunders in a new facility to house the security guards protecting the embassy. The guards' base, which remains unopened today, is just a small part of a $592 million project to build the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

The main builder of the sprawling, 21-building embassy is First Kuwaiti General Trade and Contracting Co., a Middle Eastern firm that is already under Justice Department scrutiny over alleged labor abuses. First Kuwaiti also erected the guard base, prompting some State Department officials in Washington and Baghdad to worry that the problems exposed in the camp suggest trouble lurking ahead for the rest of the embassy complex.

The first signs of trouble, according to the cable, emerged when the kitchen staff tried to cook the inaugural meal in the new guard base on May 15. Some appliances did not work. Workers began to get electric shocks. Then a burning smell enveloped the kitchen as the wiring began to melt.

All the food from the old guard camp -- a collection of tents -- had been carted to the new facility, in the expectation that the 1,200 guards would begin moving in the next day. But according to the cable, the electrical meltdown was just the first problem in a series of construction mistakes that soon left the base uninhabitable, including wiring problems, fuel leaks and noxious fumes in the sleeping trailers.

"Poor quality construction . . . life safety issues . . . left [the embassy] with no recourse but to shut the camp down, in spite of the blistering heat in Baghdad," the May 29 cable informed Washington.

Such challenges with construction contracts inside the fortified enclave known as the Green Zone reflect the broader problems that have thwarted reconstruction efforts throughout war-torn Iraq.

The "fairly serious problems" noted in the cable indicate that First Kuwaiti's work fails to meet basic safety standards, said an administration official who was not authorized to speak to the news media. But the State Department's Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), which oversees construction of the new embassy, has kept a "close hold" on the project, making it difficult for anyone else in the government to gauge progress. "We are suspecting we will find the same issues in the new embassy," resulting in months of delays, the official said.

The embassy cable prompted a stinging response from James L. Golden, OBO's managing director for the embassy project. In a cable dated June 8, he berated personnel in Baghdad for sending their message over an open embassy system, rather than keeping the complaints in-house. He defended First Kuwaiti and accused the embassy and KBR -- a Texas-based company that runs many facilities in Iraq and discovered the wiring problems -- of making false claims to deflect attention from their own errors.

The guard base "has been constructed to the approved design specifications," Golden wrote, adding that "none of the issues raised in the cable has merit" and that "it appears [the embassy] and KBR simply do not want to operate the camp for other reasons."

KBR said its concerns were justified. "Safety remains KBR's top priority," said Heather L. Browne, the firm's director of corporate communications. "Our initial assessments determined that the issues identified were not linked to KBR's work and in fact inspection reports from the [State Department] confirm that KBR was not responsible for the safety issues identified."

Tensions Over Deadline

The tough exchanges between Baghdad and Washington reflect some of the tensions as the State Department rushes to complete the embassy this year. Originally, the new guard base -- estimated to cost about $22 million -- was due for completion in January, but deadlines were missed. OBO certified that the camp "meets and exceeds" its contract requirements in a letter signed April 14 and provided by First Kuwaiti. The new delay in moving the guards may affect plans to build temporary housing for maintenance workers and contractors hired to help run the new embassy, which is scheduled to be completed in the fall.

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