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A decorative couch beckons inside one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces in Tikrit. Massive chandeliers hang from the ceilings in Saddam's mother's palace. Decorative tile on a door frame. Does it lead to a grand hall, perhaps? No, this door opens into the bathroom. This "Gone with the Wind"-style marble staircase would be just as much at home in Tara as in Tikrit. This tiny room in one of the palaces, accessible through a narrow, hidden hallway, has a reinforced steel door and accommodations fit for any dictator-in-hiding. Massive chandeliers hang from the ceilings in Saddam's mother's palace. Stained glass glows inside Saddam's mother's palace. A door in Saddam's mother's palace. Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, in his office inside one of Saddam's former palaces. Much of the palace was in disrepair when U.S. forces arrived. Salah ad Din governor Hamid Hamoud Al Qaisi (center, in white suit) says he wants to move his office from downtown Tikrit into one of the palaces. The entrance to one of the palaces. Lots of rooms, river view: this palace overlooks the Tigris, more palaces and the city of Tikrit.Photos by Anita Powell, Stars and Stripes

TIKRIT, Iraq — A former symbol of waste, tyranny, excessive wealth and poor taste will now become a palace of the people, when U.S. officials give Saddam Hussein’s former pleasure palace complex to the Iraqi government later this month.

The U.S. Army plans to return the campus — which has 134 buildings was formerly the site of Forward Operating Base Danger — to the Iraqi government by Nov. 22. No official plans for the property have been announced.

The sprawling compound, much of which sits on a promontory overlooking the glittering Tigris river and Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, has an interesting future before it.

Local officials say they’re considering turning parts of the complex into a tourist attraction, perhaps to include a luxury hotel.

“We are thinking about establishing a tourist area in those palaces,” said Salah Ah Din governor Hamid Hamoud Al Qaisi. The nattily dressed governor also said he intends to move his offices from downtown Tikrit into one of the palaces.

Whether Hotel Saddam is a tenable idea or not, there is much within the complex that would delight the kitsch-loving tourist. The main palace, which Saddam reputedly built for his mother, would be an ideal contender for a show called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteless.”

Brass and glass chandeliers drip from ceilings and sconces. Nearly every horizontal surface is coated with a thin veneer of marble. Twisting marble stairways lead to endless marble hallways, which lead to cavernous marble rooms (not to mention small, poorly functioning marble bathrooms with toilets inlaid with gold leaf). Verses from the Koran are carved all over the marble walls, as is the word “Saddam.”

Soldiers who have lived amidst the grandeur for 10 months say living in Saddam’s castle is not all it’s cracked up to be.

“It’s a façade,” said Maj. Chris Lawson, 46, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J. “The construction’s really poor. The electricity was really poor. The plumbing never worked. It’s flashy, but nothing works.”

And, he added, “there’s a lot of rats. The place is crawling with them.”

Those who worked in the building’s cavernous halls said they, too, aren’t going to miss the place.

“I used to hate coming to work here in the morning,” said departing public affairs officer Capt. Tom Earnhardt, a member the 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. “It’s just so arrogant. Just the fact [Saddam] would build something like this in one of the poorest cities in Iraq.”

Just prior to the ceremony on Nov. 1 when the 42nd Infantry Division handed over control of the region to the 101st Airborne Division, soldiers hustled down the stairs carrying heavy trunks as Iraqis in business suits mulled around wonderingly, snapping photos.

The new stewards of the grounds say they are thrilled with their new digs.

“This is for the Iraqi people,” said Gen. Mahmood Sanjawi, a Sunni Kurd, in Kurdish. “Before, these palaces were a dictatorship site. It was just for a few Iraqis. Now, it will go to the Iraqi people.”

American officials agreed that the symbolism of the palace outweighs its practical value.

“This is a place that was once for the few,” said 42nd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto. “It’s now a place for the people. Instead of being a symbol of how one man spent Iraq’s wealth, it’s now a symbol of how Iraq’s wealth can be spent by its people.”

That said, “it’ll be tough going back to an armory when you’ve been living in a palace,” he joked, looking around his marble-coated office. “It’s been quite an experience living in this place, for sure.”


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