The many guises of Saddam’s former luxury palace
By Carles Grau Sivera
Baghdad, Mar 17 (EFE).- Built on an idyllic artificial lake by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, Baghdad’s Al Faw Palace complex has since served as one of the main US military bases during the invasion and then a jail for the dictator before his execution. Now, perhaps ironically, it hosts the American University.
“And that there is some sort of poetic justice, really, in what Saddam Hussein was doing and now what we are doing, which is an educational institution for the benefit of the entire country,” the newly-founded university’s president Michael Mulnix tells Efe from his office, which is still decorated with tiles bearing the initials of the former Iraqi ruler.
While Saddam did not spend much time in the palace, also called the Water Palace, his megalomaniacal legacy is etched into the walls and ceilings, which are inscribed with his poetry and his name. The American University – Baghdad has decided to preserve these details.
The palace complex was bombed during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. American soldiers later used it to establish Camp Victory, where Saddam was held after his capture that same year.
Some of the trials into crimes against humanity were held in Al Faw Palace, which was constructed on the orders of Saddam to commemorate the recapture of the Al Faw peninsula, in southeast Iraq, during the war with Iran.
The luxurious complex was left abandoned following the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 until an Iraqi businessman in 2017 struck a deal with the government to convert Hussein’s former offices and rooms into classrooms.
“This room (the President’s office) for example, and all of them were similar, all of these tiles were hanging down and destroyed, there were birds flying around all the windows, snakes on the floor, foxes,” says Mulnix.
“It was just abandoned. And it was totally totally destroyed. Really in bad shape.”
Following “serious conversations” about the impact of installing an American university in Saddam’s old palace — a plan that initially came under heavy criticism — the Iraqi directors and founders of the institution decided to restore the complex to its original design.
“We finally decided, no, this is a historic place, these things happened, just by ripping it out doesn’t mean that did not happen,” the president adds.
The crown jewel of the Al Faw complex is the main palace, which was the personal residence of the dictator. The artificial lake surrounding the palace is stocked with what are popularly known as ‘Saddam’s bass.’
Access to the main palace is currently restricted due to ongoing renovations to the exterior. Restoration work is also being carried out in its interior, which is home to Saddam’s former office and bedrooms.
The university president says the renovation project has cost some $300 million.
Mulnix adds that it was “awe-inspiring” to enter the building for the first time, but also mentions that the cell where Saddam was held until his 2006 execution by hanging is located just a few kilometers away in a smaller palace.
Entering there, he says, “gives you a very strange feeling.”
Accessing the palace complex is fraught with security checks that include dogs specialized in sniffing out explosives and weapons.
Some students who spoke to Efe said going to class was akin to navigating airport security or crossing a border.
“Here there are security issues. We hope that someday Iraq will become stable to the point the gates are open and people wander in and out. Right now, the only thing they need to do is tell the security guards at the front gate what they are doing, why are they here,” Mulnix says.
Inside the complex, students take buses to the center of campus, a sprawling “city within a city,” in the words of the university president.