Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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IRAQ: A palace for all seasons, and then some

December 14, 2008 |  8:46 am


How many palaces is enough? A summer one and a winter one? Perhaps one for each of the four seasons? Try 89, the total number of palaces that the U.S. military says it was able to determine exist in Iraq. At least eight of those were dubbed "presidential" palaces; there are several sporting palaces as well.

But it's the lavish, sprawling marble mansions built by ex-leader Saddam Hussein that account for the most famous of Iraq's palaces, and according to a 1999 State Department estimate, he had built 48 such structures just since 1991. Now, most of his palaces are being used in ways he never could have imagined.

Iraqpalace1The Republican Palace inside what is now Baghdad's International Zone has been used for years as the main U.S. Embassy compound. Until most Embassy officials moved to the newly opened U.S. Embassy up the road, they worked amid the marble staircases, mosaic ceilings, and heavy chandeliers of the structure. They even sat on some of the plush but garishly colored furniture that remained after Hussein's fall, including a collection of bright green chairs and a sofa that outfitted one of the press officer's offices.

The Faw Palace in western Baghdad, on what is now the main headquarters for U.S. military operations in Iraq, houses the offices of high-ranking American generals. Its impressive rotunda, with the obligatory chandelier hanging from the domed ceiling, is used for important ceremonies. Army Gen. Ray Odierno took command of U.S. forces from Gen. David H. Petraeus there during a handover ceremony earlier this year. 

Now, some Iraqis finally are getting a chance to see the insides of some of the palaces, which were strictly off-limits during Hussein's time in power. One of the most lavish sits on a manmade hill and overlooks the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon. The one in Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, is even more impressive. A British art publication reported recently that the British military has come up with the idea of turning the gargantuan palace in the southern city of Basra into a museum.

Much lore surrounds the construction of these sprawling structures, many with man-made lakes and canals gracing their grounds. A British historian and journalist, Adel Darwish, wrote that in an attempt to wear down Hussein during the sanctions era of the 1990s, the United Nations blocked imports of materials needed to build new palaces, which Hussein allegedly was constructing at a frantic rate to hide his various secrets and to ensure he had inpenetrable places to hide in the event of an attack. These materials included marble and alabaster, which according to Darwish's fascinating account, led to plundering of ruins and tombs where such things could be dug up and re-used for palace needs.

--Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photos from top: Saddam Hussein's former palace overlooking Babylon, which was opened to visitors recently; Iraqis wander the entry hall at the palace overlooking Babylon. Credit: Maha Mohammed, Times staff writer.

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