On the west bank of the Tigris on the edge of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone a forest of cranes marks the progress of Iraq’s newest monument: a US embassy that will be the largest in the world.
Once an army of more than 3,500 construction workers have completed it in June 2007, the vast complex will be the new hub of the American administration in Iraq.
Protected by 15ft thick walls and ringed by military guards, it signals the seriousness of America’s intentions to retain a large and long-term presence in the country. The £315 million building’s existence is meant to be a secret. Any request for a comment from the US State Department is met with a terse rebuff, and a plea for a photo opportunity is deemed out of the question.
But it is impossible to keep hidden a complex that will be the size of Vatican City with the population of a small town, especially when it is lit up at nightfall to permit work on it to continue 24 hours a day.
America’s largest existing embassy, covering 10 acres and consisting of five buildings, is in Beijing. It will soon be dwarfed by the new Baghdad mission.
It takes nearly five minutes to drive along just one side of its 104 acres, which will contain 21 buildings, the first floors of which are clearly visible along with the metal trellising that provides protection from mortars.
The surrounding city may still have erratic clean water supplies and intermittent electricity but the new embassy will have a guaranteed supply with its own water treatment facilities and a generator.
The only details of what the completed complex will look like can be found in a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report.
There will be six blocks with 619 one-bedroom flats, a recreation building, a beauty parlour, gym, swimming pool and even its own school. A lavish “American Club” will provide a venue to relax in the evening and a site to host receptions for visiting dignitaries.
The majority of the construction workers have been brought from Kuwait amid security concerns about hiring Iraqis. But American staff are completing the most sensitive parts of the facility.
The report also explains why such a luxurious site is needed: the State Department is finding it more and more difficult to persuade its employees to come to Iraq with its constant threat of violence.
The present accommodation in the Republican Palace in the centre of the Green Zone further dissuades the faint-hearted. Lack of space means many of its 3,000 staff have to sleep in trailers and its temporary offices lack even enough chairs.
It is only in recent weeks that Iraqis have begun to realize the new complex is being built. Last month a local newspaper became the first to write an article on it.
It questioned why the US had been given land in the centre of Baghdad for free instead of having to pay the market price for it. Telegraph Group, Ltd.