A Tour of the Palace

All roads to the palace passed by corpses - a mini-van with the fighter who had tried to ram it into US soldiers carbonised at the wheel, the attendant sprawled by the towering arch, the guard lying in the shadow of a golden dome, the body of a middle-aged man rotting in his green BMW near the north gate.

These were the approaches to Saddam World, the forbidden city on the bend in the Tigris that was the steely inner core of the Iraqi regime, and its private playground.

On the lower reaches of the palm-fringed estate, off-limits to all but the most exalted members of the regime, the London-based

Guardian

newspaper reporter found the poolside palace where the ruling family used to take its pleasure: the first glimpse into the private life of the secretive trio of father and sons who terrorised Iraq for years.

Headed notepaper in a drawer bearing the name of Saddam's eldest son, Uday, called it the Domes Palace. It appeared to be the favourite spot of Uday, a notorious womaniser who would kidnap young women on the streets for his gratification.

While the country was ruled by Saddam, Uday, his brother Qusay and a clutch of relatives and clansmen, ordinary Iraqis were too afraid to even point in the general direction of the Republican Palace and few knew what was harboured there.

With Saddam's whereabouts still a mystery, his pleasure domes featured on a tour of Baghdad by the retired US general Jay Garner, the newly designated, temporary military ruler of Iraq who is in search of a headquarters for the new regime.

Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Decamp, US army commandant of the compound, said the main building, adorned with huge busts of Saddam wearing the helmet of Saladin, would be an ideal choice. If the general decides to take it, he will have plenty of space to roam around. The compound stretches more than 1 kilometres along the river.

Though the Republican Guard offices at its northern gate were reduced to rubble, and troops were picking corpses off the grounds with a bulldozer this week, for burial along the main avenue, the complex remains imposing.

Apart from the main Republican Palace, the Moorish-style fantasy palace by the pool and a private house locked by the US Army, it has apartment blocks for the staff, a Spanish hacienda guesthouse for dignitaries, a palace for receptions, a nursery school painted with Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Bugs Bunny, an oversized replica of Jerusalem's golden Dome of the Rock, and a private theatre.

Even the US Army was awed by its size, especially the Republican Palace, with its miles of marble corridors. "I've never seen anything like this in my life," said a soldier in the tank idling by the gate. "It's beautiful, or at least it was," he said, meaning before it became the main theatre in the battle for Baghdad.

But the four-metre chased brass doors, the mirror and gilt ceilings and the mural of Saddam instructing his master builder left them cold. "There are a lot of marble floors and the chandeliers are huge, but there is a kind of cheap feel," said Sergeant Steve Walden.

The crescent-shaped Republican Palace was apparently never lived in by Saddam, and the US forces found almost no personal effects there. Nor were there many clues to the personality of the former master of Iraq in the palace where he once received foreign dignitaries.

These palaces projected the official image of Saddam - built on a scale to intimidate. Much of his private life remains under guard in a smaller palace at the southern end, locked by Decamp when the compound was captured. "It had the nicest stuff you have ever seen, stacked up like a warehouse," he said.

He described hundreds of bottles of choice drinks with a logbook of when they were served, expensive pen sets, and the accessories that were Saddam's insignia: the black homburg hat and a gun. He used the home as recently as December, judging by the US news magazines the troops found there.

Decamp allowed a tour of Saddam's other refuge, the Domes Palace, where he and his sons relaxed. It is now serving duty as a medical station.

Down the road, US engineers were burying the corpses of the regime's defenders with as close as they could get to Muslim rites, and marking their plots on a grid.

It could hardly have been more removed from the scenes that would have unfolded at the palace during the days of Saddam and his sons. Then it was not about death but sex. The oval-shaped swimming pool set the tone, with a bar at the shallow end with stools for eight.

A lounge in one of the turrets, with oyster shell-shaped throw pillows, has a painting in coral and aqua in a medieval style of a man reading a book and wrapping his arm around a woman, his hand resting on her right breast. Improbably for the most heavily guarded compound in Iraq, the windows are fitted with locks and keys. Sergeant Miguel Deugarte, the US army tour guide, pronounced it "cheesy".

Downstairs the main hall was knee-deep in rubble from the bomb that pierced the ceiling.

Among the wreckage there were still signs of splendour and decadence, from the matching flower-shaped fountains in the sitting room by its fresco of a woman playing the mandolin, to the dining chairs with alternating backrests of blue-eyed men and women. A painting showed a man raising a jug to his lips; the spout was the face of a woman.

But the heart of this home is perhaps the suite of bedrooms opening directly onto a patio that faced the pool, with a powder-blue canopy bed surrounded by nylon curtains and a matching chaise longue. The other two bedrooms - in sage green and pale pink - are equally lavishly appointed, the dressing tables adorned with twinkling mirror mosaics.

It was more difficult to divine the purpose of a fourth room, where a strange back-stretching contraption was set up in front of two matching armchairs. The soldiers were mystified, but then their whole encounter with Saddam World had been puzzling.

"This is Saddam Hussein's palace?" said Deugarte. "I expected better than this. You can go to any palace in Germany and you see oak, mahogany and beautiful craftsmanship, hand carving. He might have been rich, but he had poor taste."

- Guardian

A Tour of the Palace 1

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