U.S. awards $500 mln contract to expand Afghan embassy

KABUL (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department has awarded a contract worth more than half a billion dollars to expand its embassy in Afghan capital Kabul, a project it says will create hundreds of jobs and reflect its dedication to Afghanistan.

The $511 million contract was awarded to U.S. construction firm Caddell Construction, Inc. by the U.S. Department of State Overseas Building Operations to build an addition to the chancery and expand permanent housing, the U.S. embassy in Kabul said.

The contract will create more than 1,500 local jobs and inject around $200 million dollars into the Afghan economy through employment, purchase of materials, transportation and the lease of property, it said.

Wednesday’s announcement draws comparisons with U.S. behaviour in Iraq, where it unveiled plans for a massive new embassy in Baghdad in 2007, also seen as a step meant to symbolise its transition from an occupying power to an ally of a sovereign government.

The United States announced a civilian “surge” last year to accompany an influx of troops to Afghanistan but the number of military personnel far outnumbers State Department officials.

In December, President Barack Obama ordered an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the last of which arrived over the summer, bringing the total number of U.S. troops there to around 100,000. Other nations contribute about another 50,000 troops.

Obama has said he plans to begin a gradual withdrawal of those troops from the middle of next year as security responsibility is gradually handed over to the Afghans, sparking worry among some Afghans that Washington is looking for an exit.

Washington has tried to placate those concerns in recent months by saying the handover will be gradual and that it does not intend to abandon Afghanistan.

Republican Senator John McCain said this week in the wake of a big Republican victories in Congress that he hopes Obama will review U.S. policy in Afganistan.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul is already a sprawling complex in a prominent part of the city that dwarfs other diplomatic missions. Heavily fortified, the embassy also has a private road linking it to the NATO headquarters and President Hamid Karzai’s palace.

Based in Montgomery, Alabama, Candell Construction, Inc. has carried out many contracts for the United States government and military, building several embassies, consulates, courthouses and prisons.

(Reporting by Jonathon Burch: Editing by Paul Tait)

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