The Haunted Embassy
The strange and delightful story of Achmed Alkaissy, the last remaining employee of Iraq's American embassy.
11:00 PM, Nov 23, 2003 • By ERIC PFEIFFER
DURING THE LAST SEVEN MONTHS the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., could have blended in more easily on the streets of Baghdad than in the nation's capital.
Beneath its front door stacks of old newspapers piled on top of each other in deteriorating layers that ended in a pile of gray mush. The sign outside advertising "Iraq Interests Section" had begun to rust over. Weeds ran rampant over its grounds and the building was without power. The phrase, "The name of this chamber is Peace" once inscribed upon the second floor fireplace had faded beyond recognition. As U.S. forces began the liberation of Iraq, the embassy was abandoned and all but one of its employees deported.
The man left behind is Achmed Alkaissy, a U.S. citizen since 1986 and assistant to the former Iraqi ambassador. A 41-year-old with a background in economics, Alkaissy speaks with ease about the affairs of the two countries he has called home. He is a man of seemingly divided loyalties: Dual citizenship, son of a Shiite mother and Sunni father, supportive of Iraq's liberation but skeptical of its implementation. Having served in the embassy since the mid-'80s, he has seen his career and Iraq's U.S. representation threatened during the 1991 Gulf War and then again with this year's overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He has outlasted both.
ARRIVING AT THE EMBASSY I found him emerging from a side entrance with two State Department employees in tow. They had arrived with five maintenance workers who were beginning to clean the grounds as Alkaissy and the State employees discussed getting the embassy re-opened for business.
Alkaissy led me inside the building, which was still without power. We navigated through the darkness up a short flight of stairs that led into the ballroom. Rays of light seeped in through its dust-covered windows partially illuminating the surroundings. Two small couches had been pulled in to the middle of the room. He sat down on one and I took the other.
Dressed in a blue T-shirt, black jeans, and an Oakland Raiders cap, Alkaissy set a pack of Dunhill cigarettes on the coffee table separating the couches and began smoking immediately.
For the last seven months he's been the sole contact for 300,000 Iraqi citizens living in the United States, attempting to manage the embassy's affairs from the confines of his Alexandria home. "I couldn't do anything," he says. "I didn't have authorization from the State Department. The Iraqi community wants passports. These people have visas that need to be renewed and I can't help them. They can't return to their families and they can't establish themselves here. They are stuck."
State has arranged for three Iraqi diplomats to serve in the embassy when it re-opens. Two of the diplomats will come from Iraqi embassies in Algeria and Vietnam, the third will be from Baghdad. Alkaissy has brokered an agreement with the Algerian government to sponsor Iraq's embassy until its assets are no longer frozen.
He was visited in late August by Ahmad Chalabi, then serving as president of the Iraqi governing council. "Chalabi is a very nice gentleman. He's very open-minded," Alkaissy explains. "He understood our needs. One of his objectives is to rush to open the place. He promised he would do something and I'm sure he is doing it."
During his visit, Chalabi and Alkaissi took down the portraits of Saddam Hussein which had lined the embassy's walls. The portraits remained in the ballroom, stacked face down, as we sat and talked. The largest, standing more than four feet tall, leaned against a wall, looking out over the room's expanse. Alkaissi laughed, "This is one of the newer ones. They'll probably want it for a museum somewhere."
Behind the portraits sits the embassy library which hosts a grand, oak bookshelf over 10-feet wide and containing hundreds of books inscribed in Arabic behind a glass case. Every volume is Baath party literature. "I'm tired of all this." He says. "No one ever read these." Still, the ghosts of Saddam lurk everywhere. A clock stopped at 11:27 p.m. hangs over the ballroom doorway, marking the time Achmed and his colleagues closed down the embassy.
HAVING LIVED IN AMERICA for two decades enjoying its freedoms and culture, Alkaissy is upset by the media's coverage of his native country's transition from oppression to liberty. "Democracy is not going to the 7-Eleven and buying a Coke and chips. Democracy needs to have a process. People there elaborate on democracy in a different way than we do here in America." He becomes agitated as we discuss critics of U.S. foreign policy, who insist Iraq is stable enough for sovereignty. "Even in America, the full democratic process was being understood in the late '60s. We're talking over 200 years. Now in Iraq, we're looking at a couple of months. It cannot be given like this. It has to be step by step."
Several of Alkaissy's relatives served in the Hussein regime. His uncle was a high-ranking member of Iraqi intelligence. Now thousands of former Baathists, who chose not to fight coalition forces (including his uncle) are unemployed. "When I talk to my uncle, he says, 'Ask them to bring us back. Bring the intelligence back, the secret service. Those who abused human rights put them in jail. Most of us are just employees. Put us in a different category. At least we could help the Americans to settle the security problem.'" Alkaissy says he has written Condoleezza Rice and offered his assistance to the State Department as a liason between former Baathists and U.S. forces but hasn't received a response.
Contrary to popular opinion, Alkaissy insists Iraqis are not the main threat to coalition forces. He blames unemployment and Iranians. "To have a job or get an education in Iraq you had to be a Baath party member. But over 90 percent of the people didn't support Saddam. Now, half the population is out of jobs. They cannot feed their families. Who will they find that will support them? Maybe a previous regime will bring them to the opposition. Or, you will find the Iranians supporting them trying to bring an Islamic government to Iraq."
"They'll forget about this 'nice life' in the Saddam era because now they are free," he continues. "The main problem is the Iranians. They are creating some friction. When I talk to anyone over there they say the Americans are going to be here for a while and then they will leave. But the Iranians, they will try to stay."
ALKAISSY SEES IRAQ as a new beacon of hope not only for the Middle East, but for all countries suffering under oppressive regimes. He sees a nation that will serve as a testament to freedom around the world. And once his work at the Iraqi embassy is done, he plans to return to his native country and start his own political party. "It will be the Iraqi Republican party. These critics will say anything about George Bush. I don't care what they say. He's a good man. He made the tough decision and did the right thing."
In the meantime, Washington's own patch of Iraqi soil and its lone representative await reconstruction, slowly exorcising the demons left behind on Saddam's American real estate. As we look out the ballroom windows, the maintenance workers have cut away a significant portion of the weeds that just hours ago consumed the grounds. A block away in Dupont Circle, fliers are posted with the phrase, "End the occupation now! U.S. forces out of Iraq!" When I mention this, Achmed shakes his head and smiles, "They are entitled to their opinion. And now, thankfully, Iraqis are too." Then, he repeats, "Bush, he is a good man."
Eric Pfeiffer is a writer in Washington D.C.