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Party on at Saddam's palace
by Iason Athanasiadis    Asia Times
Entered into the database on Friday, May 05th, 2006 @ 12:21:17 MST


Untitled Document

Tuesday night is karaoke night at Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace in central Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

To the beat of the music, Iraq's latest conquerors triumphantly take to a stage that dominates the inner courtyard of what is today the temporary US Embassy in Baghdad and bawl out old rock 'n' roll and blues anthems to their heart's content.

A few meters away, soldiers take off their shirts to play volleyball, State Department contractors have a party on the lawn, and bikini-clad embassy workers splash in the swimming pool. All an awe-struck British journalist gazing over the scene for the first time can do is absent-mindedly mumble, "It's Saigon all over again."

Were Saddam to revisit his old haunts, he would undoubtedly come in for a very unpleasant surprise. For one, he would not even make it through to his old living quarters.

Aside from the current US Embassy and former Republican Palace being inside the Green Zone, a complex web of security has also been thrown up around the palace. X-ray machines, a body search and numerous checkpoints stand between the casual visitor and the palace gate.

Ordinary journalists armed with a standard media pass must be escorted everywhere around the Green Zone, a 10-square-kilometer restricted area in the heart of Baghdad ringed by 3.5-meter-high blast walls and criss-crossed by still more concrete barriers, concertina wire, and checkpoints anchored by US armored vehicles.

As one American scribe for the Defense Department's Stars and Stripes newspaper commented, "These passes place you one step above an Iraqi terrorist detainee."

Peruvian private security men recently gave one visitor a particularly thorough pat-down at the last guard booth before the palace before starting to run an explosives-sensitive sensor over him. Seeing him, his colleague told him in Spanish not to bother. "Let him go, he's American, not Iraqi."

Once inside the palace, the extraordinary architecture induces visitors into awe-struck wandering through the grandiose corridors. The palace itself is a neo-Babylonian affair built on a massive scale and composed of tremendous pillars, bulky double-leafed doors, soaring domes and a labyrinth of passages decked out in elaborate, chintzy Middle Eastern couches and faux Louis XIV armchairs.

To the sides, 5-meter-high entrances open up onto crowded chambers now used as offices, where work stations sag under the load of computers and all the detritus of a modern embassy office.

"Pretty kitsch, eh?" an army escort laughed. "Looks as if Saddam commissioned Liberace and Elvis to build this place."

After the aloof grandeur of the palace, the spacious KBR-operated cafeteria stuns one with the abundance of food. The mouth-watering range of options in the packed buffets stretches from prime cuts of tender roast beef, crab delicacies, an undulating array of pasta dishes and chili-smothered baked potatoes to a dazzling selection of salads, several cakes and fruit pies for dessert, and refrigerators stacked with soft drinks.

Hundreds of diplomats, military people and contractors crowd into the noisy, air-conditioned premises for dinner, while others take their food out to the garden, where the beat of heavy rock music rolls around the lawn, striking a discordant note with the softly illuminated neo-Babylonian architectural style of the palace reflected in the pool.

Suited US State Department diplomats sit at the tables dotting the lawn, eating out of plastic, one-use trays alongside groups of T-shirt-wearing contractors, their M-3 rifles propped up against the garden chairs.

The majority of US diplomats come on short, three-month rotations to Baghdad. With Iraq already recognized as the definitive US military adventure of the 21st century, word in the State Department is that a short posting in Baghdad is essential for career-minded young diplomats looking for rapid promotion.

Their three-month rotations weigh in at just a quarter of the average military tour of duty. Added to the few opportunities to go out into highly unstable Baghdad, it is no wonder many US diplomats seem to think they are still picnicking by the Potomac River.

The karaoke and pool-side volleyball will soon be transferred from the Republican Palace to a massive 42-hectare complex currently under construction inside the Green Zone. When ready, it will be the largest US embassy in the world. The US$592 million facility is being built inside the heavily fortified Green Zone by 900 non-Iraqi foreign workers housed nearby. Construction materials have been stockpiled to avoid the dangers and delays on Iraq's roads.

Once built, the embassy will be entirely self-sufficient and provide a school, six apartment buildings, a gym, a pool, a food court and American Club, and its own power-generation and water-treatment plants for its 1,000 staff. The size of Vatican City, the complex will be six times as large as the United Nations compound in New York and two-thirds the acreage of Washington's National Mall. Iraq's interim government transferred the land to US ownership in October 2004 under an agreement whose terms were undisclosed. The Republican Palace will be turned back to the Iraqi government.

But until next year, when the project is to be completed, Saigon nights will continue at Baghdad's Republican Palace.

Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based correspondent.