Iraq struggles to use Saddam’s crumbling palaces

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Scattered across Iraq are more than 100 opulent palaces and villas built by former dictator Saddam Hussein – some in use, many in ruins like much of the war-torn country.

With their marble columns, ornate carvings and showy furniture, they reflected the megalomania and delusions of grandeur of Saddam, who only visited some of them once or twice.

In his residence in Babylon, the profile of the dreaded strongman is engraved in bas-relief like that of the Mesopotamian emperor he idolized, the king of the Chaldean dynasty Nebuchadnezzar II.

In many places, the initials “SH” are still visible as reminders of the despot who was overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2003, captured later that year and executed in 2006, the report reported. AFP.

Most of his palaces were looted during the chaos of the invasion, when the thieves scavenged whatever they could carry, even ripping electrical cables from the walls.

Since then, only a few of the palatial residences have found a second life, often as military bases or public administrations, more rarely as museums.

Most are empty, in part because the cost of refurbishing them is prohibitive.

“We can turn palaces into museums, at least in Baghdad – a tapestry museum, for example, or about the royal family or Islamic art,” said Laith Majid Hussein, director of the Iraqi State Council of Antiquities. and heritage.

But he conceded that the rehabilitation of many of Iraq’s “gigantic castles” would require “astronomical sums”.

Bureaucracy and entrenched corruption are other obstacles, said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Bureaucracy and corruption hinder the restoration of these palaces to make them tourist resorts or heritage centers,” he said.

Saddam, during his more than two decades in power in this oil-rich country, built many monuments and palaces while cheerfully defying the Western embargo of the 1990s.

In the turmoil of war, many were damaged in battle or used as bases by United States and other foreign forces.

In Baghdad, three palaces now house the presidency and the prime minister’s offices.

The sumptuous Al-Faw complex, surrounded by an artificial lake, has been home to the private American university since 2021, built by an Iraqi investor.

Al-Faw, located near the airport for Saddam’s VIP guests, once served as a US base. Today, its stone and marble buildings house auditoriums, lecture halls and a food court.

University president Michael Mulnix said he was proud of the project which saw “the palace of a former dictator and a fairly ruthless man” become an institution of higher learning.

While the main palace had survived relatively intact, he said, “all the other buildings…were really destroyed.

“The windows were all broken, there were birds flying, snakes on the floor, literally. So it was very messed up. We had to come in and do some substantial renovations.”

In the southern city of Basra, three palaces remain.

Two are used by the Hashed al-Shaabi, a pro-Iranian paramilitary alliance now integrated into the Iraqi regular forces.

The third has become a prestigious museum of antiquities.

“We managed to turn this symbol of dictatorship into a symbol of culture,” said Qahtan al-Obeid, the provincial head of antiquities and heritage.

To date, he said, Basra is the only Iraqi province “to have transformed a palace into a heritage building”.

Iraq has a total of 166 Saddam-era residences, villas and other compounds, he added.

An architect from the old regime, also asking not to be named, said that since 2003 Iraqi governments had built little and had been unable “to match what Saddam had erected”.

Majid Hussein said that in the province of Babylon, authorities plan to turn a palace overlooking the UNESCO World Heritage site into a museum.

The imposing palace stands atop a hill in the city whose history dates back 4,000 years.

After years of neglect, the walls are covered in graffiti and the chandeliers have been broken, but some outer buildings now house a resort.

“When we arrived in 2007, the site was in a deplorable state,” said its director, Abdel Satar Naji, who added that the local authorities “decided to turn it into a leisure center”.

The Iraqi city known as the “City of Palaces” was Tikrit, the despot’s hometown northwest of Baghdad on the Tigris.

The presidential complex had around thirty villas, but they too are today an abandoned memorial to excess.

One area there, however, attracts visitors – albeit for another tragic reason that dates back to the post-Saddam era.

It was here that militants from the ISIS group in 2014 executed up to 1,700 air force cadets in what became known as the “Speicher massacre”.

Mourners now visit a memorial set up on the spot, on the bank of the Tigris, which once carried the bodies of murdered young men.


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