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Saddam has left the building

photo
[AP photo]
A looter stacks gold-rimmed china plates inside the bomb-blasted dome of the al-Salam Presidential Palace in Baghdad on April 13. Some observers praise the lavish decoration in Hussein’s palaces; others call them monuments to excess.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 22, 2003


Casinos? Luxury hotels? State museums? Experts wonder what will happen to Hussein's opulent palaces, which now stand empty.

As he toured one of Saddam Hussein's enormous palaces last week, Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley had a suggestion:

"This could make a pretty nice casino."

Probably not. The Koran, the Muslim holy book, calls gambling an "abomination of Satan's handiwork," so don't expect to see a Bally's of Babylon or the Harrah Hammurabi. But Moseley hit on an interesting point.

What do you do with a bunch of palaces when the main man is gone?

"They should fall into the public domain -- it's public money," says Elizabeth Corbin Murphy, an architectural historian.

"I have no idea what his palaces are worth, but I would love the opportunity to list them," offers Clint Sly, who publishes a guide to luxury homes.

"Maybe they can become great bed-and-breakfasts," suggests Gustavo Araoz, a Washington, D.C. architect who helps evaluate sites for World Heritage designation.

As outsiders finally get a look at Hussein's palatial digs, there's no shortage of ideas for recyling some of the biggest, most opulent structures in the Middle East. Some already are serving as temporary headquarters for U.S. military leaders or officials involved in rebuilding Iraq. Others could end up as luxury hotels or lavish estates for the nouveau riche. Still more might become Versailles-like museums, reflecting the enormous gulf between haves and have-nots during Hussein's brutal 24-year rule.
Loot is too valuable to sell
Art expert says artifacts stolen from the Iraq National Museum are too well-known and will resurface eventually.

One thing is certain: Iraq's oil-for-food program was more like "an oil-for-palaces" program, in the words of Gen. Tommy Franks.

As punishment for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was hit with economic sanctions that Hussein deftly turned to his advantage. Photos of sick, hungry Iraqi children proved so disturbing that the United Nations agreed to let Iraq sell oil to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian necessities.

Instead, a good chunk of the oil billions was spent on palaces whose size is rivaled only by their garishness.

"They are pretty over the top," says Araoz. "Maybe they could be museums for the prevention of bad taste."

Although looters have carted off much of the contents, enough remains to offend his aesthetic sensibilities. "This morning I saw American generals sitting at this godawful desk that was white with gold," he said, referring to a photograph of Franks and his aides at a rococo monstrosity in one Baghdad palace.

A swimming pool also met with Araoz's disdain: "It reminded me of the Hearst Castle, which again is in horrible taste."

But from what he has seen in other photos, Araoz says "the lavish use of materials is extraordinary" -- fine woods, imported marble, vaulted ceilings with intricate designs in traditional Islamic patterns.

Araoz belongs to the U.S. chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an organization of professionals who evaluate important historical and cultural sites for the United Nations. Some of his British colleagues already have suggested that Iraq, the cradle of civilization, has huge tourism potential and that some of Hussein's palaces could be converted into opulent lodgings.

"Iraq would be quite a pleasure and treasure to go through, so bed-and-breakfasts are not entirely out of the question if you could bring in some decorators," Araoz says. "But you can attract a certain segment of the world's population with that architecture -- people who have a distorted idea of what luxury is."
photo
[AP photo]
A man surveys what’s left of a conference room in the burned-out al-Salam Palace, in the heart of Baghdad.

As Iraq's economy revives, some of the palaces could also become lavish homes for foreign investors or titans of a new capitalist class. Many have man-made lakes and spectacular gardens; some sit on the banks of the Tigris River, while at least one overlooks the ancient city of Babylon. All are surrounded by walls that ensure maximum privacy and security.

But luxury-home specialists caution that it may take months, if not years, to establish a system of property rights in a country that has been under totalitarian rule for so long.

"To go into Iraq and purchase property would be a pretty dicey situation right now," says Donna Lee Laue, president of California-based Unique Global Estates, billed as the world's largest database of properties over $1-million.

"As far as ownership, title and security of money go, I'd want to be real careful."

The fact that most of Hussein's palaces are relatively new does not diminish their historical value. Experts note that it is difficult to determine the significance of a contemporary structure because of the lack of historical perspective.

"It's important not to make any rash decisions and not to immediately tear anything down," says Murphy, an Ohio architect and chair of the American Institute of Architects' historic resources committee.

"There may be things of interest in how Saddam's palaces were equipped for his quick getaway and how they were equipped as far as military capability. That's going to make every one of his palaces different and more unique and more significant than other things built in the last 13 years."

Like other experts, Murphy thinks some of the palaces should become museums. "They are part of the history of the Iraqi people and certainly we must remember what happened," she says.

Iraqis by the thousands already have wandered through the palaces, eager for a look at the vast ballrooms and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. Just a month ago, they could have been shot for lingering too long outside the palace walls; now they can indulge a basic trait of human nature.

"We're all terribly nosy about other people's homes and want to know what goes on behind the curtains," says Jacqueline Gazzard, spokeswoman for Britain's Historic Royal Palaces. "It cuts across all cultures and everybody is fascinated by that kind of thing."

In fact, valuable lessons in turning Saddam's palaces into museums could come from the British, who created modern Iraq as their empire began to break up.

At the Tower of London, Hampton Court and other landmarks, "'we try to give an impression of how life was and a snapshot of history," Gazzard says. "It's terribly easy to open the doors and charge someone to come in -- what's tough is to make it an educational and entertaining experience."

If the Tower is any guide, future visitors to Hussein's palaces won't want a sugar-coated version of history. Many visitors to the Tower, where Ann Boleyn and others were executed, complained that nothing reflected the torture that went on inside. As a result, the Tower is opening a new exhibit on the rack, the medieval device used to rip apart prisoners.

For sheer horror, Hussein's regime is exceeded by few in history. Iraq's museums -- whether in his former palaces or other buildings -- undoubtedly will reflect that.

"If it does nothing else, we would hope history teaches us what to avoid in the future," Gazzard says. "The reality is that we so often repeat mistakes of the past. If you're going to represent something from the past, let's use that positively and show how we can improve our lives and do things better the next time."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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