From any serious distance, it looks like any other monumental stone building along Embassy Row, with its brick structuring and gated entrance. But come closer, and you see visible signs of rot: Cords of ivy slither inside open windows, stacks of unopened newspapers have deteriorated into wet pools of gray mush, and weeds, creepily, have overwhelmed the foliage in the front yard and begun to suffocate the sidewalk. There are literally cracks in the foundation.
The embassy was abandoned shortly after U.S. forces entered Iraq in late March. All but one of its employees were ordered out of the country, and it fell under the control of the American government, like Iraq itself. And just like Iraq, the situation at the embassy has been deteriorating ever since.
No lights were on inside the embassy, even though I visited at one in the afternoon. The embassy’s entrance was shielded in a breezeway of dark, reflective Plexiglas that obscured any view of the front doors. I stepped inside the darkened walkway and faced a large, wooden door with a thick metal handle. After three knocks had gone without response, I gave the door a light shove. It opened. My memory flashed to a skit from “The Daily Show” last year. Correspondents for the faux news program went on a trick-or-treat escapade through Embassy Row. Approaching the Iraqi embassy, the sky darkened as the soundtrack of a Bela Lugosi-era monster flick filled the background. But what was a parody last year has now become reality.
Faint sounds emanated from inside the 30-room, 9,000-square-foot building, so I called out my most pleasant sounding “Hello?” Several more calls and still no response. I worked my way down a stairway to the building’s basement, which was covered with a glass canopy that had a single shattered panel near its center. It was very dark. At the bottom of the stairs, I found a dead bird lying on the floor, head twisted away from its body, the beak pointed toward a thick metal door. A large padlock had been undone, but the room inside was pitch black. At that moment, a stranger’s hand gripped my shoulder from behind.
I swung around and stood face to face not with some threatening Lovecraftian menace, but a State Department official. She could have won a Karen Hughes-look-alike contest, in her sleek gray business suit, and cropped, gray-streaked hair.
Her eyes narrowed. I realized this was the sort of vague thing an al-Qaeda wannabe seeking a contact might say. “Achmed,” the first name of the Iraqi embassy staffer I had scheduled to meet, even sounded like a code name. “What’s his last name?” she asked, forebodingly.
“Alkaissy.” After I showed her my press pass and explained why I was there, she seemed, reluctantly, convinced I wasn’t there on business for the Fedayeen.
“And what might you be doing here?” I asked. She smirked and replied: “I’m with the State Department. You’ll have to go around to the front and wait for him outside.”
Back around front, I found Alkaissy exiting the embassy with another Department employee. He greeted me warmly and exchanged a few parting words with the visiting State employees, who had left behind a crew of maintenance workers unloading equipment to clean up the embassy grounds. Alkaissy led me back inside the building, which was still without power. We walked through the darkness up a short flight of stairs into a large ballroom. Rays of light seeped in through its dust-covered windows, leaving the room partially illuminated, and we sat down. The building was purchased by the Iraqi government in 1961 and has had a turbulent history since. The motto “The name of this chamber is Peace” was once inscribed upon the second-floor fireplace. The inscription disappeared in the early ’90s. Literally and, I suppose, also figuratively.
Alkaissy has seen his career and his country’s diplomatic connection with the United States threatened twice, after the 1991 Gulf War and this year’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and managed to outlast both. Dressed in a solid blue t-shirt, jeans, and an Oakland Raiders football cap, he set his pack of Dunhill cigarettes on the coffee table and started smoking immediately. Were I to have casually passed him on the street, I would never have guessed this was the man responsible for trying to revitalize the principal American headquarters of a country with which the United States has spent the last seven months at war.
For the last six months, Alkaissy has been the only contact for Iraqi citizens in the United States, attempting to run the dealings of an embassy that is charged with assisting the more than 300,000 Iraqis currently living in the United States, from the confines of his house in Alexandria. “I couldn’t do anything. The Iraqi community started calling me. I don’t have authorization from the State Department to do anything. The main thing the Iraqi community wants is passports. I have 630 passports waiting. They can’t return to their families and they can’t establish themselves here. They are stuck.”
The first move towards reestablishing the embassy came in late August when the Iraqi Governing Council’s Ahmad Chalabi–then serving as president of the council on a rotating basis–stopped by for a visit. The first thing Chalabi and Alkaissy did was take down the dozens of photos and portraits of Saddam Hussein that hung in each of the embassy’s rooms. A pile of the smaller pictures lies face down on a boardroom table in the ballroom. Standing more than four feet high, the largest of the portraits leans against a wall overlooking the room’s expanse. “This is one of the newer ones,” Alkaissy says, laughing. “They’ll probably want it for a museum somewhere.”
That was, so far, the only thing Chalabi has done for the embassy, but Alkaissy has faith. “Chalabi is a very nice gentleman. He’s very open-minded. He understood our needs. He promised he would do something, and I’m sure he is doing it.”
But for the moment, the embassy’s real boss, like Iraq’s, is the American government, from which it receives occasional orders but with which it has little face-to-face discourse. The State Department has decreed that three Iraqi diplomats will come to the embassy when it reopens; two of the diplomats will come from Iraq’s embassies in Algeria and Vietnam, one from Baghdad. But with all Iraq’s assets frozen, the embassy building has been gathering dust, cobwebs, and neglect. The ghosts of Saddam lurk everywhere inside the building. Behind the stack of portraits lies the embassy’s library. Achmed leads me to a grand, glass-cased oak bookshelf over 10 feet wide holding hundreds of books with their covers inscribed in Arabic. Every single volume is Baath Party literature. “I’m tired of all this,” he says. “No one ever reads these.” A clock hanging over a hallway near the main offices is stopped at 11:27 p.m. The last of the expelled officials shut it off as a marker of the moment when they were forced to leave.
We went back outside together. The State Department’s maintenance crews were taking saws to the shrubs that just hours ago had shrouded the grounds. It was a fitting moment for departure: At the embassy, as in Iraq, the facelift had begun.