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Pak-US in fresh row over embassy expansion in Islamabad

May 28, 2012 20:03 IST

At a cost of $740 million, it would have been the biggest American mission overseas.

Amir Mir reports from Islamabad on how the US embassy's expansion plans in Pakistan has run into trouble.

Against the backdrop of growing tensions between the United States and Pakistan, the US plan to strengthen its presence in Islamabad by constructing a gigantic embassy building in Islamabad to accommodate 750 more staff members seems to be in serious jeopardy.

The US decision to construct a huge embassy building to diligently pursue its so-called strategic interests in the region has already raised several eyebrows in the Pakistani establishment circles, amidst apprehension that the project was a part of the imperial American designs on the region.

The expansion plan is being seen by many as a threat to national interests, especially at a time when anti-US sentiments in the country are at the highest level after the May 2, 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in a covert American raid and the November 26, 2011 Salala check post aerial attack by NATO planes which killed 24 Pakistan soldiers.

As per the US embassy expansion plan, the Americans intend to add several adjacent properties to the already sprawling compound with a view to expand office space and accommodate 400 to 500 apartments.

The current US mission in Islamabad houses a large military and intelligence contingent as well as diplomats. The site would expand by 18.5 hectares and buildings would be knocked down and reconstructed.

The scale of the project rivals the giant US embassy in Baghdad, which was controversially completed at a cost of $740 million, making it the biggest American mission overseas to date.

According to US embassy circles in Islamabad, Washington feels its staff of 750 men and women is insufficient to cope with the job on their hands and need to be given an injection of at least 750 more staffers.

Pakistani establishment circles are of the view that the embassy expansion would take the US diplomatic presence in Islamabad way above the current largest American diplomatic mission in Beijing; the number there stands at 1,450 personnel.

Amid all these apprehensions, a retired Pakistan army officer has filed a constitutional petition in the supreme court, challenging the construction of the US compound on the ground that it may be used to conduct covert US operations in South Asia and the Middle East.

Challenging the embassy expansion project under Article 184(3) of the Pakistani constitution Lieutenant Colonel Inam-ul Rahim (retd) has urged the Pakistan supreme court to pass restraining order to prevent the Americans from proceeding further on their 'expansionist imperial agenda'.

The colonel argues that contrary to the trend set by the communication age of cutting down staff, the Americans are extraordinarily enhancing their presence in Islamabad, which may also include hundreds of US Marines with the latest equipment, which may be a means to 'bring us down on our knees' and to 'capture our nuclear facility' so that Pakistan could get the same treatment the US meted out to South Korea, Taiwan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

He maintained that the construction of a huge embassy building as well as underground bunkers posed a grave threat to the security and sovereignty of the Pakistani State.

'The United States has already raised the level of its manpower to such an extent as if a mini State is being constructed within the State of Pakistan which should be taken as a serious threat to the security and sovereignty of Pakistan,' Colonel Rahim maintained while describing the US move against the right of life and liberty of citizens guaranteed under Articles 4, 9, and 14 of the country's constitution.

He requested the court to set up a high-level inquiry commission comprising persons of high repute from the superior judiciary to discover the actual motives behind the US embassy expansion.

Colonel Rahim informed the court that Pakistan's Capital Development Authority had already conveyed (on January 10, 2012) its approval to the US embassy for the construction of 16 new buildings with covered area of 1,734,212.23 square feet (1.7 million sq ft).

A US embassy spokesman in Islamabad denied reports about the construction of a super embassy, adding that the new building was being constructed with the Pakistan government's prior approval because the existing facility was at least 40 years old and dilapidated.

The spokesman said the Islamabad embassy expansion project was not a new process as US embassies in Egypt and Iraq had also been expanded recently. The project, he said, would be completed in five years at the cost of $1 billion. 'We have nothing to hide,' he said.

Well placed officials in the Pakistani security establishment say they have conveyed their apprehensions over the US embassy expansion project to the concerned authorities, seeking the revision of the height of the embassy complex to four storeys instead of seven.

In a letter written to the CDA chairman, a senior Inter Services Intelligence official termed the US embassy building plan a 'security hazard'.

Expressing fears that the activities in important buildings -- including the presidency, the prime minister's house and parliament house -- could be easily monitored from the rooftop of the seven-storey complex, the ISI asked the CDA chairman to explain how it could approve a seven-storey structure in the capital's diplomatic enclave.

After receiving the ISI letter, the CDA is reportedly in a fix. It cannot afford to defy the ISI's instructions and it cannot unilaterally revoke or revise the approved plan for the US embassy expansion either.

The petition in Pakistan's supreme court could give the CDA a route out and ask US embassy officials to halt construction till the court rules on the matter.

Amir Mir in Islamabad