The new American ambassador, John Negroponte, arrived on Tuesday to take charge of what is set to become the largest US embassy in the world. Nearly 1000 US citizens and initially around 700 Iraqis will staff the massive mission.

The embassy will also house members of the world's largest CIA station, US media have suggested.

The outgoing head of the US-led occupation authority, Paul Bremer, left Iraq the day before Negroponte's arrival after handing over a document to a group of Iraqi officials signifying the transfer of sovereignty - in reality, the transfer of limited civilian and bureaucratic responsibility.

Baghdad's protected Green Zone
currently houses the US embassy

US officials have remained to advise Iraqi ministers, while more than 150,000 mostly American troops under Washington's command keep the country under control.

Until recently an ambassador to the United Nations, Negroponte's diplomatic service in Vietnam has prompted comparisons between the Baghdad embassy and the powerful US mission in Saigon during the Vietnamese war.

He has also been accused of covering up human-rights abuses of the US-backed Honduran government while he was his country's ambassador to the Central American nation from 1981 to 1985.

That Bremer did not bump into Negroponte at Baghdad airport was deliberate, according to US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

"The intention was not to overlap," Ereli said last week. "They are doing completely different functions, and we don't want there to be any confusion in the public's mind."

Difficult diplomacy

But preventing such confusion is just one of the difficult challenges facing an embassy in a country scarred by a year of often brutal conflict between US-led forces and anti-occupation groups ranging from home-grown resistance to suspected foreign fighters.

"We shall see - but I think America is still controlling Iraq," said Majid, a Baghdad taxi driver.

US-led foreign troops will have to
police the nation for now

Iraqi critics of the Bush administration's policy echo that sentiment.

"This government is just a puppet - the real power in the country is the US embassy," Rayad Umar, a former media director at the Interior Ministry, told Aljazeera.net.

Besides overturning a serious image problem, Negroponte and his staff must somehow oversee the spending of around $18 billion in reconstruction in a dangerously hostile environment.

"What will be the function of an American embassy in a country which is run by America?" Edward Peck, US ambassador to Iraq from 1977 to 1980, told the Boston Globe newspaper on Saturday.

"This embassy is going to have a thousand people hunkered behind sandbags. I don't know how you can conduct diplomacy in that way."

'Tangible benefits'

In order to win over sceptical Iraqis, analysts say, Negroponte must ensure that the $18 billion reconstruction fund - around half of which has already been earmarked for various projects - is spent wisely.

"People need to see real, tangible benefits," says Jafar Saadiq Muhammad, the assistant dean of Baghdad University's college of mass communication.

"This embassy is going to have a thousand people hunkered behind sandbags. I don't know how you can conduct diplomacy in that way"

Edward Peck, former US
ambassador to Iraq

"They need to see more jobs, better infrastructure, reliable electricity, improved education - they need to see all the promises the US made last year kept." And the benefits of the country's oil resources must be seen returning to Iraqis, he said.

Part of that scepticism is also rooted in the years of anti-US education during the Saddam era, says Muhammad. So the ambassador must work hard to form a better image of the US in Iraqi eyes.

Although many Iraqis believe that their country remains occupied with limited independence, Muhammad says a fair number also think they have little choice but to accept US intervention given the poor security situation.

Fortified location

Talking about security, more than $480 million has been pooled to help set up, protect and begin operating the embassy, State Department spokeswoman Brenda Greenberg said.

The embassy will oversee "four regional hubs in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hilla and Basra" as well as five smaller regional diplomatic teams working directly with military units. Roughly 200 advisers will work with various Iraqi ministries.

Iraqis want oil income to make a
palpable difference to their lives

The embassy currently occupies three buildings in the heavily fortified Green Zone, an area encompassing the palace complex of ousted President Saddam Hussein that hosted Bremer's administration until this week.

With the Iraqi government keen to take back the complex, the State Department says it has identified another site for construction of a new embassy building but will not give details of its location.

Meanwhile, security concerns mean most staff are expected to be confined within the Green Zone for at least a year. Attacks on US-led forces and interim government-linked targets have killed in excess of 100 people and wounded more than 200 in Iraq during the past week alone.

'Danger money'

"Despite the hostile environment, recruitment is on track," Greenberg said. "Our first request for volunteers for Mission Baghdad received over 1000 bids for about 140 positions from over 200 individuals.

"We have filled over 95% of these positions."

US embassy staff will have to live
under non-stop threat of attacks

In addition to a 25% hardship allowance, staff will receive a 25% bonus as danger money, said Greenberg. Recruits have been taking a five-day course that teaches "hostage survival" and "chemical and biological weapons awareness".

"There will be no families," said Greenberg.

Local staff normally outnumber US personnel at such missions but because of security concerns, private non-Iraqi contractors will be hired for tasks such as protection and even cooking.

A large number of CIA officers and contractors will be on hand to gather intelligence on opposition forces, as well as a psychiatrist to help embassy personnel deal with the stress of living under the constant threat of attack.