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U.S. Embassy in Iraq officially reopens

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Once again the American flag flies beside the U.S. Embassy in Iraq—just not too high.

In a brief, highly secure ceremony Wednesday beneath a searing sun, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, presided over the embassy's official reopening, 13 years after it closed on the eve of the Gulf War.

As Negroponte, embassy officials, top Army generals in Iraq and an audience that included about 75 embassy staffers quietly watched, Marines raised the nation's flag on a 30-foot pole in a small patch of grass in the back yard of what will be America's largest embassy.

"The embassy of the United States of America in Iraq is once again open for business," Negroponte declared.

That business includes overseeing more than $18.4 billion in U.S. aid earmarked for reconstruction. Also, the embassy replaces the defunct Coalition Provisional Authority as the source of American influence in Iraq. Scores of U.S. advisers to the interim Iraqi government will operate from it.

Yet Wednesday's event—inside the fortified Green Zone, behind embassy walls and under armed helicopters—left it clear that America's front door in the newly sovereign Iraq remains closely guarded. As it was, the flagpole rose just to the top of the embassy, below the view of those who could use it to target the building for attacks.

"It's not really a standard size," said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Lance V. Chwan, 36, of Little Falls, N.J., the leader of the Marine security guard detachment that raised the flag. "I don't think we really want to go too high right now."

No Iraqi government officials attended Wednesday's ceremony. In an earlier interview, Kasim Daoud, an Iraqi minister of state, said the embassy opening was a natural course of events. That same day, Iraq officially reopened its embassy in Washington.

"We are happy and we are proud that our diplomatic relationship returns with the United States," Daoud said. "We are really looking forward to cooperating with all the nations because we need the expertise to help us for reconstruction.

"There are many advisers from different countries that may reach Iraq very soon."

Negroponte also invoked the spirit of cooperation during a two-minute speech before the American flag rose.

"These have been a long, difficult 13 years, and now there is a new Iraq to explore, the likes of which has no precedent in the history of this ancient land," he said. "Our presence, our outreach and our insight into Iraq's political life, its economy and its society will be crucial to shaping a new era in bilateral relations."

Despite Wednesday's rhetoric and symbolism, America's unpopular presence in Iraq, which includes about 140,000 troops, is a giant obstacle between Negroponte and the successful completion of his diplomatic mission.

For instance, the decision to use Baghdad's presidential palace, which the CPA staff had occupied, as an embassy annex rankled many Iraqis, including Daoud. "Yes, indeed, I share this criticism," he said. "I think that the presidential palace is a symbol of Iraqi sovereignty."

Daoud said American officials have assured their Iraqi counterparts that they will vacate the palace in about two months.

Perhaps of greater concern is whether Iraqis will view the massive U.S. Embassy as an unwelcome influence on the Iraqi government.

Yet if the Iraqi government can improve security, the economy, infrastructure and otherwise raise the standard of living, such perceptions will fade or become irrelevant, Daoud said.

"Let us be realistic," he said. "If you show them (Iraqis) these things, I doubt very much they will listen to any other argument."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.