Past disasters at embassies loom

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The Obama administration has bolstered security at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq to protect staff and prevent any repeat of past disasters that have overwhelmed American diplomatic compounds. 

Embassies are sovereign U.S. territory and a symbol of American power projection, which for years has made them inviting targets for the nation’s enemies.

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Attacks on embassies and American diplomats have a charged place in history, which is haunted by such images as the frantic escape from the roof of the embassy in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, the capture of the embassy in Iran at the beginning of the 1979 hostage crisis and the deadly attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept 11, 2012. 

The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80, when Iranian students paraded blindfolded U.S. diplomats and military personnel through the streets, is an enduring symbol of American weakness.

The 104-acre compound in Baghdad on the River Tigris was built with past attacks in mind. It is inside Baghdad’s international Green Zone, a protected area fenced off from the rest of the city with blast walls.

Twin 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed a combined 224 people, are a reminder of the need for the protections.

Roughly the size of Vatican City, the Baghdad embassy compound cost more than $815 million to build, and already boasts substantial security systems to protect the 5,000 Americans who live and work there.

Its annual security budget is nearly $700 million, according to a May 2013 Office of the Inspector General report. Some 3,300 U.S. government employees and contractors — the bulk of those living within the embassy — work for the security office.

Administration officials have expressed confidence that Sunni Muslim extremists threatening Baghdad as part of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are not an immediate threat to the embassy.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Yahoo News on Monday that he did not believe Sunni militants could seize the capital “in the near term certainly, and I don’t believe they necessarily can at all.”

Nonetheless, the administration appears to be taking extra steps to ensure the safety of embassy personnel as violence begins to encroach on the capital. At least 15 people were killed over the weekend and two-dozen more were injured in a string of bombings. And on Tuesday, four Sunni men were shot dead in a Shiite-controlled area.

On Monday, President Obama notified Congress that he had deployed 275 military personnel for additional security at the compound.

The State Department is wary of revealing details about how the embassy’s security funding is spent.

“We do not discuss the specifics of our security posture or procedures,” State Department spokesperson Katherine Pfaff said Tuesday. 

It’s unclear how many people remain in the Baghdad compound; the U.S. has evacuated some officials to other posts, including the consulates in Basra and Erbil, Iraq.

Both the evacuations and the extra security highlight the administration’s efforts to ensure there is no disaster at the Baghdad compound.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday said the military personnel sent to Iraq were focused solely on “security to the embassy personnel,” and were not offering training or advice to the Iraqi government.

“The safety of personnel serving in diplomatic missions abroad is among our highest priorities,” Carney said.

The U.S. has also taken steps to provide more help, or to deal with a possible emergency evacuation.

The U.S. has sent four warships to the region, including the USS Mesa Verde, which carries more than 500 Marines and Osprey planes that could be used to facilitate embassy evacuations.

The Baghdad embassy compound is equipped with a sense-and-warn system that identifies, tracks and warns employees of incoming rocket and mortar fire. Workers are regularly subjected to biometric procedures, with locals undergoing daily iris scans or fingerprinting.

Emergency reaction teams are already in place, as are dogs trained to detect bombs. The embassy is surrounded by blast walls to shield it from explosions outside and generates its own power.

“The embassy embraced several unique security programs to address what it perceived to be extraordinary vulnerabilities,” the inspector general wrote in its May report.

In fact, security at the Baghdad embassy was heightened to the point that the IG recommended a multiagency review of whether legacy security systems first installed by the military during the war should be maintained.

“Although protecting embassy employees is paramount, the price tag for these countermeasures is significant,” the IG said.

While U.S. outposts in Basra and Erbil don’t share all of the same advanced security technology, they appear less vulnerable to insurgent attack.

Basra, a southern port city far from the fighting, is situated on a former British forward operating base 12 miles from the city’s downtown. The consulate is adjacent to an international airport, and the U.S. recently completed $150 million in security and infrastructure upgrades there.

In Erbil, a Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq, a less-threatening security environment has enabled the U.S. to hire local security staff. Employees there can occasionally travel off the compound for shopping and recreation.

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