Mammoth new U.S. Embassy marks new stage for Iraq

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 5, 2009 

BAGHDAD — The U.S. flag was raised Monday over the mammoth new American Embassy in Iraq, symbolizing a new era of restored Iraqi sovereignty and reduced U.S. power, despite the fact that it's the biggest American mission on Earth.

Some have likened the pink-hued complex along the Tigris River to a prison, but Iraqi President Jalal Talabani called it a symbol of a close and growing relationship between Washington and Baghdad.

"This edifice that you constructed is not an edifice of just an embassy but it is of the deep friendship between the American and Iraqi peoples," Talabani said at the dedication ceremony as he stood alongside U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

"It is therefore our big hope that the embassy will play the desired role . . . in emphasizing, developing, improving and expanding the Iraqi-American relations at all levels: political, economic, energy, military, cultural, technological and others," Talabani said.

Crocker noted that the U.S. government last Wednesday moved out of the Republican Palace, the most opulent palace built by former dictator Saddam Hussein, which had served as the American headquarters after the U.S.-led invasion in spring 2003.

As of last Thursday, "the last United Nations Chapter Seven resolution declaring Iraq a threat to national security expired," Crocker said to guests as the wind blew outside. "Today a flag is raised and a new era begins."

The ceremony was interrupted sporadically by helicopters flying above the compound, partly drowning out the speeches by Talabani, Crocker and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who'd served as the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq after the invasion.

The invitation to the ceremony included the instruction "No firearms, cameras, cell phones or other electronics," and guests walked into the outdoor ceremony on red carpets snaking around sandy spaces, which eventually will be landscaped.

Future athletic fields are being used to house the cafeteria and trailers where the U.S. military will live. Behind the raised stage, palm trees framed the Iraqi High Tribunal, where Saddam was tried.

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh posed for photographs with guests in the tented reception area. South Asian waiters in bow ties served pastries and appetizers to the crowd.

"It's happening, it's pumping through. It's just a drastic, drastic change," Saleh said. "Iraq has a chance of developing normal politics or quasi-normal politics now. Is it a coup by Western standards? Maybe not, but by our standards it's phenomenal."

The ceremony came in the midst of the month of Muharram, a sad, holy time for many Shiite Muslims, who commemorate the Battle of Karbala, in which Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who'd recently returned from Iran, wasn't at the ceremony Monday, nor were most other Shiite officials.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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