WASHINGTON — The State Department on Monday certified the new $740 million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as ready to open, more than six months behind schedule.
Richard Shinnick, the department's buildings chief, said problems with the mammoth, 27-building complex's fire-safety systems have been fixed, and the embassy compound will now be turned over to U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy signed the formal certificate of occupancy Monday, Shinnick said in an interview. Diplomats will begin moving into the compound next month.
The heavily fortified complex, the United States' biggest embassy, will provide working and living quarters for more than 1,000 U.S. diplomats and military personnel, many of whom have been posted on the grounds of a former palace of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
During a recent round of violence linked to the Iraqi government's military offensive in the southern city of Basra, the former palace came under intensified rocket and mortar fire, and Crocker authorized some U.S. personnel to spend the night in the new compound.
Shinnick's predecessor promised Congress last July that the embassy would be complete in September 2007.
But the project has been plagued by allegations of shoddy workmanship by the main contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Co., and unproven charges of labor abuses. First Kuwaiti has denied any wrongdoing and says it stands by the quality of its work.
Embassy contracts have been the subject of a Justice Department investigation. The status of that probe is unclear.
After McClatchy reported in January that the embassy's fire-fighting system was defective and that experts' concerns were overruled in an apparent rush to declare the facility completed, Shinnick ordered a top-to-bottom review of the project. He'd just taken over the job from retired Army Gen. Charles Williams, whose performance Congress criticized.
Shinnick said Monday that numerous small "punch list" items remain to be rectified.
"But they are not vital. ... They are not life-safety issues," he said.
Additional work also has to be done on the chancery building, which is being reconfigured with more classified spaces to accommodate U.S. diplomatic and military staffers who've now been assigned to the same location, Shinnick said. Those changes and others added $144 million to the compound's original $592 million cost.
Documents obtained by McClatchy, along with a Feb. 13 report by the State Department's own inspectors, showed numerous problems with the embassy's fire-safety systems.
They included fire alarms that didn't operate properly when tested, concerns about underground fire mains, and, in one annex building, stairs that didn't reach the structure's top floor, a violation of fire codes.
Shinnick said a team of about a dozen specialists inspected the new embassy compound over the Easter holiday to verify that First Kuwaiti and its subcontractors had carried out repairs that had been ordered.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008