Saddam Hussein's palaces

By Adel Darwish

The crisis over the inspection of President Saddam Hussein’s palaces has its roots in the hastily reached agreement of 1991. Between then and now, Saddam, cunningly, distracted the world from his true strategic reasons for the construction of the palaces.

After the 1991 cease fire, Iraq agreed to UN Security Council resolution no 687 which stipulates the destruction of Iraq’s biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and their delivery systems within six months. It was only a condition to lift the sanctions. Almost Seven years later sanctions are still in place and the mission of UNSCOM the United Nations Special Commission responsible for destroying Iraq's weapon is not complete.

It was an excellent opportunity, from the US point of view, to keep sanctions in place, waiting for a palace coup in Baghdad – Madeleine Albright, the incoming Secretary of State, announced as much in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington last year. But inspections have turned out to be a double-edged sword, because of a loophole overlooked in 1991 agreement.

UNSCOM can only operate with the co-operation of Saddam. If Iraq does not provide "minders" to accompany inspectors they are not able to enter a facility. This allows the Iraqi leader to stop their activities at any time and provoke a crisis. As consequences of both the flawed clause in the agreement and the US sanctions’ tactics, Saddam managed to conceal his strategic plans behind building palaces: hiding every thing he wants, from laboratories producing anthrax to documents and computer files.

The UN Sanction Committee engaged itself, in a game of teasing Saddam, as part of psychological warfare, by blocking the imports of material needed for his luxurious palaces. Saddam even encouraged western experts' interpretation that it was a grandiose design on the part of An Arab dictator to emulate rulers from the old Islamic Empire when they built a palace in every major provincial town.

In October 1994, after another crisis over the no fly zone, Madeleine Albright, then America’s ambassador to the UN was canvassing against lifting the sanctions. She showed Security Council members satellite photographs of building she claimed to be new palaces which president Saddam has erected since the war. (By then the Americans had made Iraq an intelligence gathering priority after UNSCOM discovered an arsenal far bigger than what was thought before the Gulf war.) But there were no eyewitnesses on the ground or pictures of palaces from inside Iraq, while the documentation and research data kept on computer files where no where to be found.

Then in January 1995, I met Hussein Wael a masonry builder who bribed his way out of Iraq at the cost of $5000. His testimony confirmed the claim that Saddam spent 1.22 bn building new palaces and renovating old ones, while his people were starving.

"They are like the palaces in stories of Sinbad and Arabian Nights," said the Iraqi builder involved in putting the final touches to the biggest and most elaborate of President Saddam's palaces.

Mr Wael’s last job was in the palace of Maqar-el-Tharthar, which is built on the surface of a lake north west of Baghdad. "It is at least four or five times bigger than the White House," said Mr Wael who was on his way his family in Fairfax Virginia.

He said workers specialised in alabaster and marble are not permitted to leave because of the grand project that included 30 new palaces besides the 19, which existed before the Gulf war. To obtain marble and alabaster, he said, the Iraqis have taken to plundering ruins and tombs dating from the Babylonian era. They were used to build a new palace on the shore of an artificial lake, created by diverting the Tigris near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

"We heard that the President [Saddam] was very angry because the US and Britain were banning the import of marble." He said

The UN sanctions committee, which allows import licences for other building materials, has pointedly turned down Iraqi applications to import marble, alabaster and electric pumps for water fountains - favourite items in President Saddam's palaces.

Saddam, who seldom shows his emotions, let it be known that he was very angry because of the ban on importing marble. It was an excellent subtrefuge. The UN went on teasing Saddam by denying him his imported marble but overlooked what he was actually doing.

In 1995 Mr Wael said that he, like other workers, moved between 15 palaces and was not permitted near tunnelling areas. The Wisdom in the West then was that Saddam was building air raid bunkers. But the tunnels, according to other reports were only made available in early 1997, where used to hide the vital material and information, especially computer disks and research equipment used in the biological weapons programme and also to move them quickly to other sites after they have been inspected. Mr wael also helped to renovate the Baghdad Republican Palace, which has tripled in size, the Camp Taj retreat north of Baghdad, and the old palace of Baiji in Tikrit as well as a palace complex built on an island in lake Abu Gharib west of the capital.

The most impressive presidential residence, according to Mr Wael, is Qasr-Shatt al-Arab, a complex of buildings and four artificial lakes built along the waterway, which separates Iraq and Iran. "One of the French engineers working there told us it was bigger than the palace at Versailles," he said confirming the involvement of French experts in constructing Saddam’s palaces.