BAGHDAD, Jan. 5, 2008 -- It's called the most expensive and largest embassy in the world.
It's not really an embassy. It's a campuslike compound that covers as much real estate as Vatican City. Four-story officelike buildings line a wide street that leads up to the main embassy headquarters.
Security measures including metal nets, screens and bulletproof glass are part of every building's architecture. As an extra security measure, television crews were restricted from filming most of the complex as it was unveiled to the public today.
Broad sidewalks lead to an Olympic-size indoor pool, tennis courts and hotel-style buildings that house the embassy staff and several hundred guards. But much of the $700 million worth of construction is hidden from view -- underground.
Today Iraqi officials and guests were greeted by the U.S. Embassy staff and members of the military as they walked onto a long red carpet that led to a crossroads on the compound.
Members of parliament, generals in combat uniforms and local leaders were seated in front of a flag pole at the entrance of the embassy. Several hundred more guests surrounded the stage on three sides.
There was a sea of military caps, colorful "kuffiyehs", bald heads and gray hair.
The sunlit ceremony was packed with symbolism. The U.S. Embassy staff had occupied Iraq's Republican Palace, one of Saddam Hussein's finest, since 2004. Last week they gave it back to the Iraqis. Today, the permanent home for the United States in Iraq was opened.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte seized the moment, saying of the changes of address, "They are potent symbols of our record of achievement." He spoke of a "partnership for generations" between the United States and Iraq.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani used the occasion to praise President Bush. Saying neither the embassy nor a free Iraq would have been possible without Bush's vision, Talabani said, "history will have a most favorable view" of America's efforts in Iraq. "It will be a model for the future."
There was liberal use of words like "new" and "change." Ambassador Ryan Crocker insisted that a chapter had closed and that "today a flag is raised and a new era begins." Later he added, "Today is more than raising a new flag and dedicating a new embassy. It is about ? a new future."
Solemn Flag-Raising Ceremony
Levels of violence are at one of the lowest levels since the beginning of the war. The U.S. military is conducting fewer patrols and when it does, it is always with Iraqi security forces.
The "operational tempo," said one senior officer, "has slowed considerably."
"It's now their war," he said.
As the Marine Honor Guard brought out the flag for the new embassy, Americans, the British, Iraqis and others became quiet. Staff workers looked down from offices through thick bulletproof windows.
The flag was raised to a slow solo performance of "The Star Spangled Banner," timed perfectly to end when the flag made it to the top of the pole.
Talabani paid this tribute: "The Iraqi people will never forget the assistance of our American friends and will always be grateful for the sacrifices of your fallen ones. ? May God's peace, blessing and mercy be upon you."