It may be the only place in Baghdad where you can see ducks and fish … and Black Hawks.
This may be the most confusing backdrop in all the world. If you wandered in here not knowing any better, you’d think you were in a resort. A few years ago, you would have been right.
This is the Al Faw palace, once one of Saddam Hussein’s 99 palaces. It was designed as a kind of corporate retreat, a relaxing playground for members of Saddam’s political party who were rewarded for their loyalty and hard work with vacation time here.
His sons Uday and Qusay used it — Saddam is said to have spent no more than seven or eight nights here himself — but like much of what he built, its all about him. His initials are everywhere, and opulence is the only design scheme.
But like a lot of things in Saddam-era Iraq, it’s not all what it seems. The rooms are enormous, the designs ornate and the fixtures are sparkly. But on close inspection, a lot of it is fake. The famous chandelier is part plastic, the walls are paper thin and a lot of the gold isn’t really gold at all.
Just about all visitors here say they sense the presence of the dead dictator. You can almost imagine Uday and Qusay water skiing on the lake. And when evening comes, it gets especially eerie — when the Humvees start coming over the distant bridge, coming in from patrol after fighting the war — coming home to what was once a resort, but is now every bit a military base.
It’s mostly intact still. American bombers hit the palace on the off chance that Saddam was here at the time, and they bombed the bridge to collapse an escape route. U.S. commanders live here now, as not to waste all this free space. Almost half a million square feet — 62 rooms and 29 bathrooms.
And about the fish: The man-made lake, stocked by Saddam, actually serves as a great way for soldiers to blow off steam by throwing in a line during their down time. There’s a unique and enormous fish in these waters, the specially bred “Saddam bass.” The one part of his legacy the Americans here are grateful for.
By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
The official tour guide
(by U.S. Army personnel)
The al Faw Palace is one of 89 palaces that Saddam Hussein had and one of 8 presidential palaces used for hunting and recreation by Baathist party members, Saddam Hussein and his family. Both sons, U’day and Qu’say had villas on the artificial lake. There were houseboats to move them around; often they would cruise the lake and take tea at one of the artificial islands.
The Palace is one of 8 Presidential Palaces put off limits to the UN inspectors in the 1990s.
This particular palace was declared off limits in 1998.
The Al Faw Presidential Palace is known by many names.
It has also been called:
The Presidential Palace North,
The Qasr Al-Faw Palace,
The Water Palace,
The Abu Ghurayb Presidential Palace.
The palace was built to commemorate the sacrifices made by the Iraqi Army during the Iran-Iraq War in regaining the Al-Faw peninsula, located in southern Iraq. In February 1986 the Iranian Army successfully launched a 30,000 man amphibious style attack across the Shatt Al-Arab river that captured the area as part of a plan to cut Iraqi oil export. Hussein vowed to retake the Al-Faw peninsula at all costs. It would take the Iraqi Army two years to recapture the lost ground. Mustard gas and other chemical weapons were targeted at approximately 8,000 to 10,000 Iranian troops during this period. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers would die in the Al-Faw Peninsular campaign – a true war for oil. As a result of that victory, Saddam built this palace to honor them.
During the 2003 march up, US Forces dropped a JDAM on the roof as well as on the bridge out back. The bomb that hit the roof penetrated it but did not do significant damage, however, the bomb hitting the utility bridge cut the electricity, gas and water lines to the palace. Saddam visited this palace a total of 6 to 8 times. This was not the largest of Saddam’s palaces (Tikrit) nor was it the smallest (Adnon). The building and construction of Al-Faw complex was started in 1989 and completed just prior to Desert Storm with much of the labor coming from the local prisons.. It was declared off limits to UN Arms inspectors in 1998 – one of the events which brought Iraq under intense scrutiny by the US. Once the U.S. occupied the palace, the damage to the roof was repaired & a new rubberized roof coating installed. There were no torture chambers in this palace. When US forces arrived in April of 2003, the palace had been abandoned. During a search of the rooms in the basement, soldiers from the 3RD Infantry Division discovered what appeared to be gold bars, but after testing they proved to be made oflead painted gold. Our forces occupied it as a barracks. There were 30-40 troops sleeping in each of the private suites. The medics had set up a clinic in the foyer. The room that is now the JOC was used as a DFAC. Food was prepared in the kitchen & then served in the DFAC area. When CJTF-7 under LTG Sanchez stood up in June of 2003, LTG Sanchez decided that the al Faw was going to be the HQ building. He booted out the troops, the DFAC & the clinic, and it has been a HQ building ever since.
Currently, it takes a crew of 40 between 5 and 6 hours to clean the palace. The palace is surrounded by a man-made lake and villa complex that initially had horse stables, a race track (now Freedom Village) date groves and wheat fields, a zoo, pools, cinema, walking paths and much more, but which have since been removed for living areas such as Dodge City North and Camp Liberty. With the palace completed, the lakes were excavated with the spall dirt used to build the hills on Camp Liberty and on Camp Slayer, which were then covered with Palm trees. The lakes were excavated after the palace was built. To fill the lakes, Saddam turned off the water to the city of Baghdad for 3 days. Once the lakes were filled, the water was turned back on. The water level is maintained by a pipeline off the Tigris River. The average depth of the lakes is between 4 1/2 & 6 feet. There are a few places where it is deeper. All of the lakes are interconnected by a series of canals & locks. The locks allowed the water levels to be adjusted as needed. The lakes are filled with fish such as the Asian stinging catfish and the Tigris Salmon, a type of carp referred as a Mangar. Recently a Tigris Salmon measuring 5 feet 10 1⁄inches was pulled from these waters. It was estimated to be 105 lbs. ESPN.COM had an article about the quest to catch this fish as well as numerous pictures. The ―Saddam Bass that are seen in the lake aren’t bass at all but asp (Aspius vorax), a freshwater fish not to be confused with the venomous snake of the same name. The asp is native to Croatia, Romania & Bulgaria. This is the only spot in the Middle East where the fish are found. Saddam had them imported because they are a well known sport fish. An interesting side note is that some locals consider carp to be sacred due to their association with the birthplace of Abraham. The rumors that the lake contained bodies of victims of Hussein have not been proven – nor has the lake been drained to find out.
The palace is 450,000 sq. ft with 62 rooms (four in the basement) and 29 bathrooms. The palace housed eight suites on the three floors (not including Saddam’s bedroom) The bathrooms are elaborate rooms with gilded metal work and marble façade. The palace is made primarily of marble, glass, wood, plastic and brass. Many of the banisters are gypsum and not carved marble. The Arabic script is made to look like gold but is actually gilded brass. The marble and locks are Italian. Many of the glass pieces one sees are actually plastic or plastic and intermittent glass.
Most Iraqi palace architects were trained in Europe, which explains why portions of the palace are a combination of European and Arab influence. Indeed, Al-Faw is a unique combination of European influence and Iraqi construction methods—some of which have been questioned by Americans with construction backgrounds.