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Security, sovereignty at issue in U.S.-Iraqi dispute over building

BAGHDAD, Iraq—American administrators spent an estimated $20 million turning an opulent sandstone building, shaded by date palms along the western bank of the Tigris River, into a state-of-the-art command center for the rapidly growing Iraqi defense ministry.

Now the Iraqi National Assembly wants it and the U.S. military is struggling to hang on. Built by a king, seized by a dictator and bombed by U.S. warplanes, this Baghdad landmark's future is once again uncertain.

The peach-colored three-story building was wired for the Internet, protected by concrete barriers and nearly ready for its new inhabitants. Then came an unexpected blow: The Iraqi National Assembly voted last month to reclaim the building as a symbolic headquarters for the newly elected legislature.

The ensuing battle has pitched Iraqis against Americans and sovereignty against security. U.S. officials and the Iraqi defense ministry, which already occupies an entire wing, claim relinquishing the building would torpedo progress in creating a viable Iraqi military. National assembly members counter that, as Iraq's supreme legislative body, they deserve a meeting place guarded solely by Iraqis and located outside the forbidding walls of the U.S.-protected Green Zone.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari faces pressure from his American allies and his Iraqi constituents to intervene. There's a meeting Thursday to discuss the issue.

"My understanding is that the government came to the conclusion they weren't going to use it," said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a military spokesman in Baghdad.

While some Iraqi lawmakers said they're willing to reconsider, many others insisted on taking the building as a stand against occupation and a test of their newly acquired power.

"This decision is daring and courageous," said Maryam Rais, a legislator in favor of taking back the building. "There shouldn't be any objection from the Americans. They put themselves in this dilemma: They wanted an independent national assembly, so how can they object when we make laws?"

The late Faisal II, the last king of Iraq, built the British-designed building in 1956 as a meeting hall for the parliament. Called the Majlis al-Umma, or Assembly of the Nation, the architecture represents that era's fashion of blending Western innovations with Eastern traditions. It's one of the few Baghdad buildings with a basement, and it boasts Roman columns as well as classical Islamic shapes. The marble inside comes from mountain quarries in northern Iraq.

Saddam Hussein used it for his vice president offices, as office space for his sons and, briefly, as the foreign ministry. U.S. warplanes bombed it during the 1991 Gulf War and again in 1998, said three Iraqi architects who tried to rebuild it to Saddam's exacting orders. But the strikes had rendered it mostly unusable except for the basement, where the former regime's commanders held secret meetings until the 2003 invasion, when it was again struck by U.S. cruise missiles.

The most recent bombings left the Majlis a shell of its past glory. Mohammed Qassim, an Iraqi architect who has worked on the building, said he toured the Majlis with U.S. contractors who were seeking local help to rebuild it as quickly as possible in the early days of the war. He said they entered the building to find U.S. soldiers camping in filthy halls. The troops had scribbled anti-Muslim graffiti on the marble walls, he said, and they'd smashed the fancy bathroom fixtures imported from Italy.

"I was in pain when I saw what had happened to that building," Qassim said. "I said to myself, `Are these really the civilized Americans we hear about?'"

The Coalition Provisional Authority, the former U.S. occupation administration, quickly set about rebuilding it with at least $15 to $20 million, said Bruska Noori Shaways, deputy defense minister. Iraqi lawmakers offered much higher estimates. About a year ago, he said, ministry officials moved into one large wing while contractors continued work on the rest of the building.

The splendor of the compound, which lies adjacent to the Green Zone, is mostly obscured from ordinary Iraqis these days. Inside the building, uniformed Iraqis and Americans mingle in the hallways. A labyrinth of sandbags, blast walls and other barricades are in place outside to stop car bombers. Even out of sight, however, it's a source of nostalgia for many Iraqis.

"This building is well known in Baghdad," Shaways said. "So many people on the national assembly had fathers or uncles who were members of the parliament during the monarchy's time. So many things connect this building to Baghdad. It's not just a nice building; it reflects Iraqi culture."

National assembly members have long requested a meeting hall protected by Iraqis, but the campaign picked up speed after a tearful legislator appeared before the body last month to recount how U.S. soldiers had manhandled him at a checkpoint leading into the Green Zone. Spurred on by outraged legislators, the speaker of the assembly threatened to suspend meetings until they found an alternative venue.

Around the same time, a committee led by Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial politician who's now deputy prime minister, was searching for a suitable site outside the Green Zone. They spotted the rose-colored building next door. Chalabi and other committee members took a tour of the grounds, praised the renovations and announced their findings to their fellow lawmakers:

"All the building needs now is furniture, and we can install that within a week," a confident Chalabi told the assembly.

Legislators voted in favor of the move, infuriating U.S. and Iraqi defense officials. They weren't about to let go of the building without a fight, said one senior Iraqi defense official who was present when Chalabi took his tour. He didn't want his name published for fear of inflaming sensitivities surrounding the issue.

"If Chalabi comes back, we'll shoot him," the angry official said in jest.

Shaways, the deputy defense minister, said letting go of the building is akin to sending millions of dollars in military technology down the drain. He said the fledgling Iraqi troops face a year's setback if forced to move. This weekend, they plan to open a high-tech operations room that connects commanders with every unit throughout the country. That, too, would be lost in relocation, he said.

"The purpose was to lead the Iraqi armed forces from this building," Shaways said. "If they decide in the end that they won't accept our arguments, then we have to leave. We're not going to strike. We are soldiers of the parliament. We have no other choice."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BUILDING


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