BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military is vacating Saddam Hussein’s ornate palaces at its war headquarters in Baghdad and will turn the property over to Iraq next month, but Saddam’s prison toilet is leaving with the Americans.
The stainless steel commode and a reinforced steel door have been removed from the cell where the dictator spent two years before his 2006 execution and is destined for a military police museum in the United States.
“We’re not taking anything that the Iraqis had. We are only taking stuff that we put in, we utilized, and when we didn’t need it any more, we took it home,” Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Brooks, a U.S. military historian, said on a tour of the site on Monday.
The villa where American troops built a maximum-security jail for Saddam and his henchman Chemical Ali sits on a U.S. complex near Baghdad’s airport known as Victory Base, which is scheduled to be handed over to Iraq’s government in December as U.S. forces withdraw completely by year’s end.
Surrounded by 42 km (27 miles) of blast walls and razor wire, Victory, the largest of the 505 bases the U.S. military once operated in Iraq, housed over 40,000 soldiers and up to 25,000 workers. Only 4,000 troops remain there.
From a peak of around 170,000, Washington has 31,000 troops remaining in Iraq, at 12 bases. President Barack Obama’s October 21 announcement that all the remaining forces would leave by year-end kicked the withdrawal into high gear.
The palaces that once housed the U.S. war command, modeled on France’s Versailles and scattered around a series of interconnected, man-made lakes, are being emptied save for Saddam’s French provincial furniture.
The Burger King, Subway and other iconic American restaurants that catered to hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers at the dusty complex are closed.
At the faux-elegant al-Faw Palace, where marble floors and walls are trimmed with cheap gypsum fashioned to look like pricey stone, the stadium-tiered war ops room where orders were handed out is dark and empty of phones and computers.
General Lloyd Austin vacated the U.S. commander’s palace in September to move to the U.S. Embassy on the banks of the Tigris.
U.S. officials said they are leaving behind improvements valued at more than $100 million on Victory base, including buildings, water tanks, generators and other equipment.
Behind a steel drawbridge and across a short causeway on an island, the maximum-security villa where Saddam and Chemical Ali were imprisoned — known simply as Building 114 — appears a bombed-out wreck.
A section of roof has toppled, the walls bear bombing scars and the swimming pool is empty and littered with debris.
American forces left the outside crumbling as a deception to hide the construction of a steel-fortified bunker inside.
“If you had cleaned up the exterior and made it look like a prison, people would know that something was going on here,” Brooks said.
“What you wanted to do was to ensure that no attempts were made to break Chemical Ali or Saddam Hussein out of jail.”
Electricity to the building has been cut off. Flashlights reveal wires dangling overhead and ceiling tiles broken on the floor. Saddam’s interrogation room is next to his cell.
Saddam was jailed at the villa from 2004-06; his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as Chemical Ali, from 2004-08, officials said.
Pointing the way to Saddam’s 8x20 foot windowless living space are the words “Saddam Hussein Detention Cell” in black print on a single sheet of white paper stuck to a wall. His guards put a sign reading “Door No: 13” above the cell’s entry.
Chemical Ali’s standard-issue combination toilet-sink is still in place but Saddam’s was removed in August, Brooks said.
“It’s going to the Military Police Museum at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri,” he said.
Out back is a concrete-walled exercise yard enclosed with chain-link fence at the top where Saddam and Chemical Ali were allowed an hour a day of sunshine, not at the same time.
Wooden planters where the men grew vegetables are still there, earth baked hard and littered with cigarette butts.
Among Saddam’s treasures on the Victory grounds are his Victory Over America palace, celebrating the Gulf War in which U.S. forces drove Iraq out of Kuwait, and the Victory Over Iran palace commemorating the 1980s campaign against his neighbor.
In many of the buildings, Saddam’s initials are etched in the walls or worked into wrought-iron window grills.
“For me, as a historian, someone who puts his initials on everything borders on megalomania,” Brooks said.
editing by Rosalind Russell