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
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
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.