Iraqi Embassy Moves to Washington Mansion

Iraq's embassy in Washington is undergoing widespread change, as Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie and his staff move into a newly renovated building across the street from the vice president's mansion. The $5.8 million building used to house the Embassy of Ivory Coast.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Iraq's ambassador to the United States spends much of his time urging Americans to be patient and to continue to help his homeland. He's also trying to raise Iraq's diplomatic profile.

This week a new embassy opened, and NPR's Michele Kelemen was there.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Iraqi embassy employees began the week unpacking boxes at a $5.8 million mansion not far from Vice President Dick Cheney's compound. Sudan, South Africa and Ivory Coast are among the previous owners. Iraq's ambassador, Samir Sumaidaie, has tried to put an Iraqi touch on it with artwork from his homeland.

Ambassador SAMIR SUMAIDAIE (Iraqi Ambassador to the United States): Iraq is not only about destruction. Iraq is the cradle of civilization. And it's a very creative society, and I want to give visitors the feeling that that is what Iraq is about.

KELEMEN: And though most of the paintings are bold modern works, the ambassador's office contains some other treasures.

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: That statue you see in the corner happens to be about 3,400 years old. That's an original piece, which was looted from the Iraqi Museum and was recovered here in the United States. It's called Antimina(ph). He was a Sumerian king.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Sumaidaie, a poet in his spare time and a man who spent many years in exile in London, is a relative newcomer to diplomacy. He has big ambitions. He's planning to renovate the old Iraqi embassy and eventually move back there. Asked why he's spending so much money at a time when his country is struggling to rebuild, the ambassador says the Iraqi presence in Washington should reflect how important U.S.-Iraqi ties are.

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: This money is not wasted. This is an asset for Iraq. Secondly, if you put that in the context of what other embassies spend, it's miniscule.

KELEMEN: Sumaidaie is the first Iraqi ambassador to present his credentials to the White House since 1991, when the U.S. and Iraq severed diplomatic ties. He says the old embassy was neglected. One of his colleagues, Osama al-Taie(ph), can attest to that. He worked there after going to college in the United States.

Mr. OSAMA AL-TAIE (Staffer, Iraqi Embassy): The interesting thing, actually I was one of the last people to walk out of the embassy in '91. So I walked out with the last ambassador, and I sort of walked back in with the first ambassador.

KELEMEN: And when he walked back in a year ago, al-Taie says he was shocked to see the place.

Mr. AL-TAIE: No maintenance, not a care for things. I don't think they even shampooed the carpets.

KELEMEN: He's been happily showing embassy staffers around the new building, which has a sleek kitchen, chandeliers and hardwood floors.

Unidentified Woman: Where is (unintelligible)?

Mr. AL-TAIE: Right here. People are discovering their offices. You're over here, right by Natalie(ph).

KELEMEN: For 26-year-old Natalie Jawarjes(ph), the new building seems a bit sterile. She's American-born, of Iraqi descent, and says the old Iraqi embassy was a window to a homeland she's never visited.

Ms. NATALIE JAWARJES (Staffer, Iraqi Embassy): You know, the paint is peeling. The heat doesn't work in half of the rooms. We joke that it's sort of like you feel like you're in Baghdad when you walk into the building. There's just this history that can't be replaced. And everything here is new, and I think that maybe this is what we need, sort of a new start. But at the same time, I'm still looking forward to moving back to that building once it's been rehabbed and refurbished.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Sumaidaie isn't making promises on how quickly that will happen. In the meantime, he's hoping the new embassy will portray a sense of normalcy during these chaotic times back home in Iraq.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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