Vast U.S. Embassy in Baghdad: A monument to what?

The new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Jay Price / MCT
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!Nothing beside remains. Round the decayOf that colossal Wreck, boundless and bareThe lone and level sands stretch far away."

Shelley's lines about a long-forgotten ruler's monument to himself come unavoidably to mind the first time one visits the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The vast, fortified complex is sterile and austere, not the open door ambiance for which Americans like to be known. Congressional funding didn't cover landscaping, so where gardens and grass should be, there's only dirt. In Iraq's hot, dry climate, it turns to dust, which blows into the eyes of anyone walking through the compound. At night, when sodium lamps illuminate the red brick construction, it has an eerie feel, like a scene out of a sci-fi movie

The compound exudes power, but also fear. It was built during the heaviest phase of fighting for an immense sum – $740 million dollars – with specs set by pessimists who assumed mortars would be fired at it for years. The cafeteria has massive bulletproof glass doors, an indoor gym is visible behind bulletproof glass as is an indoor swimming pool, and there are housing and offices for 1,000.

This colossal complex will shortly replace the current embassy – the Republican Palace built by Saddam Hussein and seized by the conquering U.S. army in 2003. That monument to pomposity, decorated in the gaudy style to which the dictator was accustomed, at least has some architectural touches borrowed from Mesopotamian history. And it will once again receive state visitors, when it is returned to the Iraqi government.

But who will be occupying the new U.S. Embassy complex in 10 years? Will there be new tenants? Will there be buckets out to collect rainwater dripping through the roof, as there were the other day at the Palace? Will grass and bushes ever be planted or will it be left to the wind: a center of Western presence in Iraq or a monument to the still inexplicable decision to come here and assert what some thought to be limitless power.

Baghdad is a place of many questions, but none so trenchant as those put to me by an Iraqi journalist: Why are you here? You overthrew a tyrannical government but then you demolished the security structure, so you had to stay. Was it oil? Did you hope to take charge of the region? What did you have in mind? And what are your plans?

There’s no ready answer to these questions except the last. U.S. plans are now clear: according to the status of forces agreement just approved by the Iraqi cabinet, U.S. forces will be completely gone in three years.

The terms of that agreement are testimony to the improvement in security. It's not safe — the remnants of al Qaida in Iraq, which sprang up after the U.S. invasion in 2003, can still stage suicide bombings — but it's nowhere near so dangerous as it was. The progress in security, the sine qua non for everything else, is solid, though incomplete, according to politicians across the political spectrum, and there’s a sense of hope, according to Iraqis who otherwise are in open disagreement.

"Yes, of course," this is a moment of hope, says Sheikh Ali Hatem al Suleiman, the prince of the largest Sunni tribe, the Dulaim.

Yet, five and one half years later, the country of 24 million is still hopelessly broken.

Electricity is being distributed – but not by the state. Instead, private entrepreneurs have set up generators and sell it by the ampere.

Baghdad is a city of many sophisticated people but no storm drains; markets that have barely been repaired, streets and buildings that remain uninhabited. You expect to see construction cranes everywhere, but instead there are traffic jams, caused largely by police checkpoints. A visitor longs to explore the byways and mix with locals but the word from security experts is to speak no foreign language and keep a low profile. Will three more years of a U.S. troop presence restore commerce and kick-start the economy? It’s hard to imagine.

The current security situation is the outcome of changed circumstances over the past two years. A lot of people would agree with Baha al Araji, a Sadrist lawmaker, who first and foremost credits Muqtada al Sadr, for ordering his own militia, the Mahdi Army, to convert itself into a social welfare organization.

The main factors, more specifically are:

-- the U.S. adoption of counter-insurgency tactics, in which U.S. forces now run joint outposts with the Iraqi army and bring security to the population,

-- the daring spring offensives ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, which took on the Mahdi militias in Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City slums, aided in both instances by timely U.S. military support,

-- the subsequent order by Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr to his followers to lay down their arms,

-- and the decision of Sunni insurgents to form the Sons of Iraq, U.S.-supported militias determined to suppress the Al Qaida in Iraq forces.

The major exception is the city of Mosul, which is anything but calm, and Diyala province, where differences between the central government and the autonomy-seeking Kurdish minority have led to at least one confrontation.

The first big test of the current calm is under way. The Iraqi government is committed to integrating one fifth of the Sons of Iraq into the security forces and hiring or training the remaining members while paying them monthly salaries. “I spoke with the prime minister. He is serious about making this work,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey W. Hammond, the commanding general of the Multinational Division in Baghdad in talks with SOI in Ghazaliya in western Baghdad. He seemed convinced and convincing as he spoke during a brief embed I did in Ghazaliya.

The Iraqi army says it's moving right along. According to Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, the handover operation "took place faster than we anticipated." He said 51,133 militia members were now being processed. And a Sunni Sheikh in Baghdad confirmed that the process is moving forward in Baghdad. "It is moving forward," said Sheikh Ali Hatem. He credited the Americans with protecting the interests of the Sunni fighters, who took on and have largely suppressed al Qaida in Iraq fighters.

"The Americans have played a good role and stood by the Sahwas," he said, referring to the militias. "They have paid the salaries for months, trained them, given them weapons, and have pressured the Iraqi government into accepting them and incorporating them into their forces."

That doesn’t translate into an efficient handover everywhere, and in fact the transition is going to be full of problems, but it does suggest some goodwill, engendered by some relentless lobbying by the U.S. military and civilian representatives.

The second test is whether Maliki can maintain the tenuous standoff with Sadr and prevent a revival of the Shiite Mahdi army militia. As many as 10,000 militia members fled to Iran, where Sadr spokesman Baha al Araji points out they are under the control of the Iranian government. "I asked the government to give an amnesty to these people, but in its arrogance, the government put those people under the control of Iran," he said. It is a tool Iran could employ at a time of its choosing.

A third test is whether Al Qaida in Iraq remains underground, severely weakened, and prevented from mounting more major attacks against civilians. Here there are differing perspectives. Sheikh Ali Hatem pronounces Al Qaida Iraq to be “defeated in our regions.” U.S. officials disagree. "Al Qaida is degraded, not defeated," says a top U.S. official. (Top U.S. intelligence officials say Al Qaida has been "strategically defeated.")

In fact they’re still recruiting.

In Ghazaliya, a reputed al Qaida operative approached a Sunni member of the Sons of Iraq and offered money and assistance to his family if he’d join them, an Iraqi officer told Gen. Hammond. U.S. forces set up an ambush and captured four men, all 17 to 20 years of age, all from within Ghazaliya. What will become of them? One top U.S. aide says until al Qaida in Iraq are "annihilated," they will be a threat. Hammond says they cannot be turned like the Sons of Iraq into supporters of the government. "They're brainwashed. They are hung up on an idea and not willing to reconcile," he says.

But Qassim Atta says the Iraqi government, if it captures the prisoners, will deal with them case-by-case. If one is a criminal and has committed a murder, he will be handed over to judicial authorities. "But if it's someone who was (merely) misled, this person is worth the effort of redemption." Which course of action will be taken, and with what effects remains to be seen.

Then there are the more profound tests with unknowable outcomes at the heart of a state that is notoriously difficult to rule: Will Shiites rely on their clerics to guide their politics, and will Sunnis tolerate that (Ali Hatem says they won’t), or will Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites view themselves more as Arabs, as opposed to the Persians across the gulf, who have designs to influence Iraq’s future? And if the Arabs unite, where will the Kurds fit in? Will Maliki operate on the basis of bravado gained from his successful gambles in Basra and Sadr City and assume a security force is of such strength that he can operate without support from U.S. troops?

Ironically, the biggest cause of uncertainty now is not the internal bickering of the past five years or the threat of mortars, but the issue of how to structure the American troop withdrawal. The completion of the status of forces accord, which, name notwithstanding amounts to the articles of divorce rather than a marriage agreement, could itself prove the undoing of the current security climate. The accord dramatically changes relations with the United States after a period that saw gross abuses at the hands of U.S. forces, from the torture at Abu Ghraib to impunity by Blackwater and other U.S. private contractors who are alleged to have shot Iraqi citizens in the way of VIP convoys.

The new accord puts Iraq in charge of detentions and lifts the immunity of the private firms. It sets a timetable for U.S. force withdrawal and the terms for restoring Iraq’s sovereignty. The accord has been approved by the Iraqi cabinet and Iran, initially opposed, is willing to let it go forward. Only the Iraqi parliament still must act.

The U.S. concessions in the SOFA implicitly acknowledge the validity of the question: why are we here? There were no WMD, and according to the terms of the SOFA, almost certainly at Iraq’s insistence, the United States is forbidden to import any.

In addition, despite the strong preferences of U.S. conservatives, the United States cannot attack Iran from here without Iraq agreeing. The argument seems awfully tenuous that the United States is in Iraq to claim the country’s oil, for U.S. suppliers will buy Iraqi oil or any other supply on the world market at market prices.

And if the American aim was to gain power in the region, the upshot is actually the opposite, having enormously strengthened the role of Iran. Was the aim the spread of democracy? In fact the Bush administration has backed away from its brave campaign throughout the region, and there is now no doubt that the U.S. can live with an Iraq that is governed on some model other than that of Washington or Westminster. None of these reasons holds water.

The only plausible explanation for staying is one that no American spokesman will admit to publicly: guilt and obligation. The real reason the U.S. is in Iraq today, is so that, having destroyed the place, we can leave with honor. Three years won’t complete the job, but it’s a start. That is actually a worthy reason for sticking around. And the new U.S. Embassy could be a fitting monument to that ambition.