WASHINGTON — The latest problem with the trouble-plagued new U.S. embassy complex in Iraq is that the sprinkler systems meant to contain a fire do not work, according to officials in Congress and the State Department.
The previously undisclosed problem in the $592 million project was discovered several weeks ago when the fire-safety systems were tested and pipe joints burst, State Department representatives recently informed Congress.
The embassy complex, being built by First Kuwaiti General Trade and Contracting Co., has been marred by repeated problems. In May, when kitchen facilities at a guard camp that is part of the embassy complex were tested, the electrical system malfunctioned and wires melted. A subsequent inquiry showed that First Kuwaiti had used counterfeit electrical wiring that did not meet specifications, according to testimony at a congressional hearing in July.
Former top investigators for State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard have charged that Krongard refused to aggressively investigate allegations of misconduct by First Kuwaiti and deficiencies in the Baghdad Embassy.
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Krongard has disputed his former aides' version of events, and is expected to testify before Congress later this month.
The one-time aides to Krongard, including former Assistant Inspector General for Investigations John DeDona, have told Congress that the inspector general did not pursue allegations that First Kuwaiti failed to construct blast-resistant walls to protect the embassy, as required by its contract.
Krongard also took the unusual step of personally investigating allegations that First Kuwaiti abused foreign workers and illegally brought some workers to Iraq against their will, the aides have told Congress.
The embassy is eventually supposed to hold almost 1,000 U.S. diplomats and embassy staff, who are now crowded into a former palace in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
It remains unclear when the embassy, intended to be the largest U.S. diplomatic post in the world, will open for business. An embassy spokesman in Baghdad had no comment Saturday on the latest problems with the new complex.
In a letter Thursday to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, complained that he had been assured repeatedly that the building would meet its scheduled opening date last month.
"Our new embassy compound in Iraq is apparently facing significant contractor deficiencies that will delay its opening for weeks or even months past its promised delivery date," Lantos wrote.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that it is unclear whether the embassy's problems are more than normal contracting delays, but he hinted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's patience is wearing thin.
"Obviously, with any large complex construction project, especially one that is happening in a difficult security environment, there is the possibility that the schedule will slide to the right," McCormack said.
"Now, if you do end up well into 2008, certainly that is something that would raise questions in the secretary's mind, and I'm sure that she would want some answers. But at this point, I'm not aware we are at that point," he said.
(Jay Price in Baghdad contributed to this report.)