|Saddam palaces to become leisure park
|U.S. troops hand over complex to Iraqi authorities
U.S. commanders on Tuesday moved out of a complex of palaces that once belonged to ousted president Saddam Hussein, a site Iraqi officials hope to turn into a tourist destination. The complex, which overlooks the Tigris River, was built just outside Saddam's hometown of Tikrit soon after the end of the 1989-90 Gulf war.
It served as headquarters to the 42nd Infantry Division, responsible for military operations in north-central Iraq. Their replacement, the 101st Airborne Division, will be staying at a former Iraqi airbase a few kilometers up the road.
Local Iraqi officials will take control of the site at the end of the month.
"This place is the symbol of how one man spent Iraq's wealth," said Major General Joseph Taluto, the outgoing U.S. regional commander. "Now is the time to return it to the people," he added.
The closure of the heavily fortified base, the 30th this year in Iraq, is also designed to concentrate U.S. troops and reduce their visibility and exposure to attacks.
American soldiers on Tuesday packed their bags, emptied the garbage, rolled up cables and took some final snapshots of the vast complex, which comprises 136 buildings, including 18 palaces.
"We've maintained the buildings," said Taludo, even though "it's not the greatest of constructions." Taludo himself worked in one of the palaces, but set up his private quarters in an outside trailer.
The palaces, now mostly empty, have grand marble staircases, huge carved wooden doors and vast rooms with ceilings covered in stucco or colored arabesque designs.
The departing U.S. troops, however, say the marble is little more than frosting that masks shoddy brickwork and failing plumbing. Tiles regularly fall from ceilings where massive chandeliers hang.
Provincial governor Hamed Humud Shikti said plans are afoot to turn the complex into a tourist or leisure park when he officially takes over.
"First we shall open the gates to allow the people to see the palaces," he said. The palaces have always been off limits to the public.
Then "as a temporary measure I shall move my office here, along with those of the police chief," he added.
Sergeant Jason Mastroietro, from Albany, New York, stood outside a palace built for Saddam's mother burning documents in a large metal drum.
"These have been very good conditions, considering we're at war," he said.
The palaces, he said, offered safety from mortar attacks and air conditioning during the hot summer.
"We're not roughing it," he added.
The Daily Star