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Struggle to make Saddam Hussein’s fragile palaces useable

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BAGHDAD: Bureaucracy and corruption causing delay in the restoration of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain’s palaces to turn into tourist complexes or heritage centres.

During 24 years rule on Iraqm over a hundred lavish palaces and villas built by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain scattered across Iraq now ruins like most of war damage country.

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

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

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

Most of his palaces were looted during the chaos of the invasion, when thieves scavenged all, they could carry, even ripping electric cables out of walls.

Since then, only a handful of the palatial residences have been given a second lease on life, often as military bases or public administrations, more rarely as museums.

Most lie empty, in part because the cost of renovating them is prohibitive. “We can turn palaces into museums, at least in Baghdad, a tapestry museum, for example, or on the royal family or Islamic art,” said Laith Majid Hussein, director of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

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

Red tape and entrenched graft spell other hurdles, said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Bureaucracy and corruption hinder the restoration of these palaces to turn them into tourist complexes or heritage centres,” he said.

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

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

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

The sumptuous Al-Faw complex, encircled by an artificial lake has since 2021 housed the private American University, built by an Iraqi investor.

Al-Faw, situated near the airport for Saddam’s VIP guests, once served as an American base. Now its stone and marble buildings house auditoriums, amphitheatres and a food court.

The university’s president Michael Mulnix voiced pride about 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 of the other buildings … were really destroyed.

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

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