BAGHDAD, Iraq — 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.
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