The mahogany paneled lobby of the newly reopened Iraqi Embassy on P Street NW has been buffed to a shine, and trash has been swept from the grounds. A television just past the receptionist's desk is again the center of attention, still tuned to CNN.
But the nervousness ascribed to the last ambassador -- who used to check broadcasts before the invasion of Kuwait to make sure he was on message with Saddam Hussein -- is long gone. Dozens of enormous pictures of the former dictator have been packed up or banished to the basement.
"Maybe we will keep them as souvenirs," said Faiz Al-Gailani, the deputy chief of mission, showing visitors the water-stained, rubbish-filled basement where employees of the last regime left piles of shredded paper before fleeing at the start of the Persian Gulf War.
After nearly 14 years of neglect and nonexistent diplomatic relations, the three-story landmark mansion in Dupont Circle has rejoined the ranks of 177 other countries that have ties with the United States. Once a stately home in which presidents and first ladies were entertained, then the official mouthpiece of a tyrannical regime, the embassy became a physical symbol of diplomatic blight.
Now, with the raising of a flag and switching of a brass plate, the former Iraqi Interests Section has emerged from diplomatic limbo under the protection of Algeria and Bahrain. It's again a full embassy, stepping slowly, blinking, into the light.
With that come the first steps toward reconnecting with the community at large, from shopping at Costco to mowing the grass to issuing passports to throwing parties that attract neighbors as well as people from across the nation.
As if in empathy with its supervisors in Baghdad, the embassy still suffers sporadic electrical outages. While its neighbors entertain in splendor, its water pipes are corroded, its electric lines frayed, its phones on the fritz. Iraq's top envoy in the United States can call out, but the public is lucky to reach a human being on one of the two working lines in the building.
Then there is the matter of how to refer to Rend Rahim Francke, the 54-year-old U.S. citizen who was named Iraq's representative to Washington in November by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad. Iraq officially gained self-rule June 28, but Francke has not yet presented her credentials to President Bush. Because the State Department hasn't received a formal request for Francke to be named ambassador, she is technically not even an ambassador-designate.
Francke deflects questions about her status and tells people she serves at the behest of what's now called the Iraqi Interim Government. What's clear is that a place once feared by Iraqi Americans as a means of spying on them is now led by a member of the opposition and an official optimist: a modern, educated woman who favors pink power suits.
She has her hands full. In addition to diplomacy and the consular affairs of Iraqi Americans, Francke manages three other diplomats and four locally hired support staff members, makes calls to members of Congress and meets with visiting Iraqi ministers.
It's true, Iraqi Americans are not exactly lining up at the embassy for travel documents. But business executives, scholars and journalists are traveling to Iraq in numbers Francke predicts will increase as the situation stabilizes.
"We're not doing tour packages yet," Francke said with a wry smile.
One of the people she manages is an accountant who also serves as an administrator, diplomat and procurement aide, and has been busy buying daily necessities from toilet paper to paper clips.
"He has assistants, so he doesn't have to physically get in the car and drive to Office Depot," Francke said. "In order to save money, we buy things in bulk. Costco, as far as I know, is one of their favorite stores."
Iraqi Americans from local colleges have been called in to help install a wireless Internet network and update a Web site for the embassy. The volunteers help fill an important need without a big budget, and they help Iraq put forward a new face as it reaches out for the first time in years.
"It's huge, whenever you start from scratch," said Ali Allawi, an electrical engineering major at George Washington University. He was talking about technological needs but could just as well have been describing the embassy's new mind-set.
"You're looking at organizational change, technological change, equipment that needs to be installed and systems that make it all work," Allawi said. "With a small staff, it's almost impossible. And we're the hot spot of embassies."
Another early task was to hire a company to cut grass that once grew at least knee high. "It was a bit like a Scooby Doo mystery house," said Daniel McAtee, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, the embassy's neighbor to the north.
"Before the war, it reminded me of kids walking past an old house. The windows were darkened and you could imagine poking around and seeing bats come out," McAtee said. "We've all joked around and made assumptions about what sort of nefarious activities took place there, like late-night disco parties."
In truth, for the past five years, the place has been quiet. Algeria might have been in charge, but because of complaints from neighbors, the State Department sent cleanup crews to work on the outside of the building, a State Department official said.
Now, neighbors are thrilled to see life behind the building's barred windows.
"There were caretakers, but the caretaking didn't extend to the grounds. There was trash and unkempt weeds," said Mark Bjorge, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area, who walks past the embassy every day on his way to work. "But now there's a new flag, a new Mercedes in the driveway. It's just nice to have a tenant in that space."
It's a space where much work remains. A shredding machine and a metal cot stand in the basement amid the few files the Baathists left behind. Foil is wrapped around electrical wiring. A refrigerator was so full of mold it had to be thrown out. Metal panels dangle from the ceiling. A few film reels survive, but others were found half burned in the fireplace.
At some point, the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad will send someone to look at what was left behind. At least one of the previous employees had the foresight to hide the deed to the building.
The embassy, bought by Iraq in 1962 for $394,000, is assessed for tax purposes at more than $6 million. Built in 1893 by Hornblower and Marshall, the Roman brick house is distinct because of its thin, orange bricks. It was probably commissioned by William J. Boardman, a Cleveland lawyer and philanthropist who died in 1915.
Boardman's daughter, a prominent leader of the Red Cross, used the home to entertain first ladies, including Helen Herron Taft. President William Howard Taft visited to thank Mabel Boardman with a diamond-studded gold watch for keeping a globe-trotting party together.
The home passed to the National Cathedral Foundation, the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America and eventually the Iraqis, who severed diplomatic ties with the United States in 1967 after the Arab-Israeli war. Until the mid 1980s, Iraq's mission in the United States remained a Special Interests Section. Today, only two other countries are in that kind of limbo: Iran and Cuba.
By 1986, Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's first ambassador following the resumption of diplomatic relations the previous spring, was inviting former U.N. ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick to dinner. By January 1991, the last ambassador, Mohamed Al-Mashat, had escaped to Canada following the U.S. air assault against Iraq. Hussein broke off relations that February, and the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions took control of the embassy from March until May 1991, when Algeria offered its services.
Finding a cool million (at least) to restore such things as the embassy's gold-painted ceilings is hardly a top priority in Baghdad. But it's unclear whether outside help, especially from the United States, would be politically sensitive as Iraq emphasizes its new political authority. Asked whether the State Department was helping with restoration, Francke said, "It's not their job, and we haven't asked."
Maybe the private sector could help. Walter L. Cutler, a former two-time U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the president of Meridian International Center, said Washington's movers and shakers will want to start cultural and educational exchanges with a new Iraq. Meridian, which promotes cultural programs for diplomats and other international visitors, hopes to expand a medical outreach program, run with Tennessee State University, that has sent medical experts to northern Iraq for the last three years.
For now, as the embassy begins to remake its way in Washington, its first sign of independence was to raise not the new coalition-commissioned flag, but the old Iraqi flag. "God is great," it declares, reportedly in Hussein's handwriting.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.