U.S. Launches Construction of New Berlin Embassy after Years of Security Delays

The United States broke ground for its new Berlin embassy on the same site as its pre-World War II mission after decades of Cold War division and years of delays to meet anti-terror standards.

With its entrance set on a bustling, traffic-free square dominated by the Brandenburg Gate, the embassy will complete the revival of a downtown plaza rebuilt from scratch since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

The opening is scheduled for November 2007, 15 years after Washington announced the embassy's return to a site that the U.S. government bought in 1930 before the Nazis rose to power.

U.S. Ambassador Daniel Coats joined German officials Wednesday in turning the first few shovelfuls of sandy soil on the empty site where the modern, four-story embassy will be built. U.S., German and Berlin flags fluttered in the background.

A fence and low cement posts will protect the embassy on two sides where it faces city streets. Traffic will be allowed, though Berlin city officials agreed in difficult talks with U.S. diplomats to reconstruct the streets, moving them away from the

"The new embassy... is designed to be safe, secure and functional,'' Charles E. Williams, the U.S. State Department's director of overseas building "We have worked hard on this design to connect this building to the local environment.''

The embassy was redesigned to include new internal security features after al-Qaida operatives bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

Conflict developed over a U.S. law passed after the bombings that required new embassies be built at least 30 meters (100 feet) away from the nearest road.

Berlin officials balked at the rule, saying it would cut into the city's main park and hamper traffic. Washington broke the logjam in 2001 by easing the law's requirements for the Berlin project.

While building the embassy in an outlying area might have made security easier, U.S. officials insisted that its rightful place was on Pariser Platz.

World War II allies France and Britain have already built their embassies within a block of the U.S. site. Germany's planned national Holocaust memorial, scheduled for completion next year, is across the street.

"I still think it was the right decision to build the embassy here,'' Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said. "I'm sure that this embassy will be an open house -- a place where people from across the world can meet and America can present itself.''

The old embassy was ruined during World War II and later razed by communist East Germany. For nearly three decades, the site stood in the heavily fortified no man's land between East and West Berlin.

In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood just a few meters (yards) away on the western side "tear down this wall.''

No U.S. ambassador ever resided at the historic embassy site. The building was damaged in a fire in 1931 and, by the time U.S. diplomats moved in in April 1939, Washington had recalled its chief envoy following the Night of Broken Glass pogrom against German Jews.

Remaining diplomats left when the United States declared war on the Third Reich in 1941.

"Architecturally, the new building closes a hole in the center of the city,'' German Interior Ministry Otto Schily said. "Historically, it is returning to one of the most prominent places in German history; and politically, it points to the future as a sign of close and friendly relations between our two countries.''

The new building will allow the U.S. Embassy to consolidate offices now split between the old embassy to communist East Germany -- fortified with concrete barriers and barbed wire -- and the former mission to West Berlin in what used to be the American sector.