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To the Victors Go the Spoils

Saddam's Victory Over America Palace, begun at a time when his victory status was extremely debatable. (photo by John Goodman)

For the most part, I've been fortunate enough to be going out on convoys every day, so I've been able to get a better handle on the work that the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion is doing in Baghdad. But on the days when there are no humanitarian aid missions, program assessments, or council meetings to attend, these Special Operations Command soldiers have plenty of administrative work to keep them busy at their offices on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Liberty. So do I, but being in the same area for 24 hours can still be a little stressful for me, so I took a look around to see what I could make of the place. Silence is golden, but the dull clatter of diesel generators, trucks and their backup alarms, and the roar of planes from the nearby airport are brown, much like the dust that constantly swirls in the air and eventually covers everything.

Endlessly drab, Camp Liberty -- part of the larger Victory Base Compound -- stretches across the alluvial plain west of the Tigris river. I'm not sure what victory smells like, but the base it's named after smells like the barbeque sauce they put on everything in the dining facility. The entire compound is nearly three times larger in area than the City of Santa Barbara. Ensconced in the midst of Baghdad's teeming neighborhoods and markets, it seems to be far removed from them. Unless you leave the base -- which you don't really need to and many people never do -- you'd never know that meat shops, clothiers, and satellite TV stores, however shabby, occupy drab and incongruent concrete and brick buildings within miles of its perimeter. Here at Liberty, though, almost all of the buildings are the hastily constructed aluminum and wooden structures, trailers, and tents that the Army needs to house, feed, wash, and work its soldiers. Complete with retail stores that can be found back in the States, it is a city unto itself, and despite reports of an impending reduction in troop strength, construction continues. Perhaps troops from bases closing in other areas will be relocated here in the near future. Nobody is sure.

A short chopper or convoy ride away from the center of Baghdad and only about a mile from Baghdad International Airport, what is now the Victory Base Complex used to be one of Saddam's palace complexes (Iraqis don't refer to him by his full name of Saddam Hussein al Tikriti). The open fields and man-made lakes around the palaces were the perfect place for the Army to set up its command posts and rectangular grid patterns of containerized housing units (CHUs), offices, chow halls, and support tents. In some parts of the base, the outlines of some of Saddam's palaces -- there were more than 99, all told, in various locations throughout the country -- can be seen on the horizon. Al Faw Palace, the Victory Over America Palace, Perfume Palace, and others stand in various states of disrepair, most housing the offices and living quarters of US military personnel. An unimposing hill, made imposing by its jumble of communications antennae, protrudes at one end of the installation, providing the only physical landmark in the part of the base from which I operate.

The palaces are, like most of the grandiose architecture from Saddam's reign, meant to be impressive, but often display styling that would make most Westerners shudder and think of the less positive aspects of the 1970s -- or at least a Middle Eastern interpretation of those abominations. The irony of these massive structures built by Saddam to leave a lasting legacy celebrating his own image -- aside from the destruction sustained by the weapons of foreign armies during the last two wars -- is that once they fell into disrepair, it became all to obvious that they were built hastily, and with money that should have been spent on the Iraqi economy. Construction on the Victory Over America Palace was begun in the mid 90s, at a time when Iraq endured crippling UN economic sanctions. Yet the scale of the place is something to behold. The main house is larger than most office buildings, with guesthouses and apartments many times the size of most of the McMansions found in the States.

A peculiar feature of Victory Over America is the Flintstones Village -- a warren of concrete formed over wire mesh in a vague semblance of the decor from the famed Hannah-Barbera cartoon series. Apparently, Saddam's daughter was fond of the show, so he built her a mini-mansion themed after the show. Today, all the windows are broken, and the walls -- covered with the remnants of colorful paint and ornate curtain loops -- are covered with graffiti left by soldiers who have passed through, although it's not the type of content that conjures a children's show.

One of the guest houses is where Saddam reportedly kept his harem. Another is rumored to be the place where his ministers went after cruising around local high schools to kidnap young girls. That tale is, of course, another of those soldier stories that although it is of dubious credibility, must be shared simply because it has worked its way into camp folklore. The point is, like all of the other of Saddam's palace buildings, government buildings, and monuments, they are nothing more than steel frames covered with thin concrete facades made to look like marble. Looking at them now, the piles of unevenly-spaced yellow bricks that compose most other buildings in Baghdad are especially noticeable, visible in the many places where the concrete has fallen away.

From far away, the most salient feature of the lakefront Victory Over America Palace is the presence of two French cranes, which tower over the ruins of a building that never quite managed to be opulent. Wait a tick, what were French cranes doing building the Victory Over America Palace? Well, French businesses were quite active in Iraq up until 2003, and had been since the oil crisis of the 1970s. Saddam actually made his first state visit to Paris in 1975. So now we know why the French were so vehemently opposed to a coalition invasion on their economic turf. French President Nicholas Sarkozy made the first ever visit of a French leader to Iraq just over a week ago in an effort to rekindle economic ties.

Saddam's crumbling legacy -- both the shoddily constructed palaces and the country's stripped economy -- bely a story of better times for the dictator. When he came into power in 1968, Iraq was little more than a backwater. Most people were illiterate Bedouin tribesmen living in rural areas, and the government was still trying to unify everyone under one government. Saddam himself was born into a family of goatherders. Saddam and his Pan-Arab, Iraqi Nationalist Baathist Party changed all that, passing sweeping government reforms, instituting an impressive public health system, drastically increasing literacy rates, and building one of the largest armies in the world. He was a man intent upon fashioning an Iraq that was the shining beacon of progress for Arab countries in the Middle East.

Unfortunately for Saddam and the rest of Iraq, his love for himself and the resulting cult of personality eventually led to his demise. The 1970s was a time of prosperity for Iraq, but the Iran-Iraq War decimated state coffers. Raging from 1980 until 1988, it has been called one of the most costly wars of attrition ever, and it claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Then, his little stunt in Kuwait in 1991 was the result of the Kuwaitis not wanting to help their Arab brothers in Iraq pay back an exorbitant war debt. Alliances being what they are, the US and a number of other countries felt obligated to step in. Once that fiasco was over, the sanctions began, although Saddam publicly announced Iraq to be the victor in the conflict -- hence the Victory Over America Palace. Things being what they are, Saddam is no longer a dictator here in this Earthly realm, and his palaces are now part of the FOB.

Even though a casual glance at FOB Liberty shows a bleak and uninteresting with an acute focus upon getting things done, there is still natural beauty to be found. The sunsets are often amazing, and if you're in the right spot -- say, on the east bank of one of the lakes looking through the fluff-topped reeds onto the reflective surface of the water -- it can be downright pleasant. It's pretty common to see TCN workers (that's third country nationals, in case you didn't catch other blog entries) fishing in the canals after they get off work. God only knows what kind of contaminants live in that water -- it's fed by the Tigris River, which is none too clean -- but the whole scene is almost like something out of Tom Sawyer if you use your imagination.

Although I've heard that salsa dancing classes are available at the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) tent, the only really plentiful recreational activities are playing video games, watching movies, going to the gym, and running circles around the man made lakes. It's amazing how easy it is to take for granted the many little tasks in life that fill up so much time and keep one from feeling boredom, but other, more mundane little things seep in to fill the gaps in peoples' available time. Everyone calls the running lake -- the military's version of a hamster wheel -- Z Lake, but I began calling it Death to Infidels Lake. In the lexicon of my dark humor, I found the name amusing, but kept the name to myself until the other night, when a rocket landed next to the jogging trail on the far side of the lake.

Other diversions can be found over by the Post Exchange (PX), which has everything you could possibly need for a sedentary life, including movies, video games, TVs, lawn chairs, and tactical gear. It's a strange place where a Wal Mart got into a fight with a Sports Authority and neither side won. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) is known by many soldiers as "Always Always Fuck Every Soldier" due to its high prices, long lines, and the surly guards out front. It always seems to be crowded, though, and for those who aren't into it, there's a bazaar next door where you can go to get the screws put to you by local entrepreneurs selling cheap memorabilia at a markup. Regardless of whether or not you think you're getting a good deal (most people shopping in there don't seem to care), it stimulates the local economy. Another point for the American military's reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

This self contained world existing within miles and miles of concrete walls and concertina wire is enough to keep anyone going for a while, and with enough imagination, it's even bearable. But when you think about the thousands of years of history that can be seen firsthand in this country, being confined to a relatively small area in front of Saddam's faux riche villas makes visions of the ziggurats and winged golden lions of Babylon become ever more enticing. The land here whispers some epic chapters of the human drama, of which the mighty Saddam and his crumby buildings are undoubtedly a part. I really doubt that the now-deceased dictator ever had any thought of a little slice of US of A sitting right in front of the very buildings he erected to honor Iraqi conquest, but when the back-lit sign in front of Popeye's Chicken flickers on in the gathering shadows of dusk every evening, there is no doubt that it has indeed happened.

The dusty CHUs of FOB Liberty. (photo by John Goodman)

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