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Life in Saddam's palace

Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 09/13/2007 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled



Matt Sanchez

Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedded in Iraq with the 1st Squadron 4th Cavalry out of Fort Riley, Kan. – the 1-4 Cav – has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never heard.

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Haifa is one of the few neighborhoods to boast “high rises.” It’s from buildings like these that the 3-5/6 MiTT and their Iraqi soldier brothers were attacked. (Courtesy Matt Sanchez)

The origins of the name Baghdad are almost certainly Persian, but even that is disputed by a people who see the nation of Iran as the greatest threat to the country of Iraq. Baghdad has been host to many visitors, both invited and otherwise. “FOB Prosperity” (FOB means Forward Operating Base) is an Army base in the Green Zone – and resident to the previous government. In the past, Saddam Hussein paraded his Republican Guard beneath the Hands of Victory, arches formed by two fists and dual swords. The monument was built to commemorate victory over Iran, two years before the war was declared a stalemate.

Returning military forces marched, in columns, down the parade grounds, eyes right to the former ruler. I met a Baghdadi who called those days a special event for all of Baghdad. Everyone was invited. Today, the Green Zone is named the International Zone – and its streets are reserved for the very few possessing authorized access. In Baghdad, change is inevitable, but complete upheaval is what has truly marked this city so near the cradle of civilization.

Prosperity is the home to the 4-9 Cavalry after having been the residence of Saddam Hussein. For a city that is conservatively over 1,000 years old, Baghdad has a short memory. No one can accurately remember or admit to how Saddam used the grounds of the present FOB Prosperity. With manmade ponds, beautiful greenery and sweeping high beige arches, one Iraqi suggested the residence was a former reception hall for visiting officials, dignitaries and heads of state. Others say the grounds once served as a “party home” where the unspeakable took place and the rumors flourished. The main building is a grandiose structure with a stunning entrance that recalls the glory of ancient empires. Wide-based, hand-carved columns tower over the visitor, forcing him to look upward, out of respect.

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Haifa is back to booming, and cell phones are one of the chief industries experiencing great growth. (Courtesy Matt Sanchez)

The principal hallway leads to an antechamber and then a main chamber. Quranic verses are carved into the ceiling and different color ceramic tiles line the base of the floor. Although the structure looks almost ancient, Saddam built it after the first Persian Gulf War and was still working on the gardens when the Americans came.

A huge hole in the dome ceiling demonstrates how well a laser-guided missile can find its mark. Yet in the days leading up to the invasion, it did not hit its intended target. Had the former ruler of a crumbling Iraq been present at Prosperity that fateful night, history may have been recorded differently.


VIDEO:The residents of this Haifa high rise have received notices and threats that they have to move out, for no apparent reason. In cases like this, average Iraqis will often trust the American military more than fellow Iraqis

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Before the invasion, Saddam was a man fighting against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. I spoke to a former employee, a cook, at FOB Prosperity. Hussein owned quite a bit of real estate in the parts of the country that were still accessible to him. According to one of 50 chefs, Saddam would have all of his help perpetually prepare for his arrival at one of several dozen residences. He was careful not to spend more than a week in any given location. Decoy Saddams traveled from one palace to the next, like salesmen trying to sell a shoddy product – the illusion of control. Every night, dozens of meals were made for no one, and at some point, Saddam would surprise a staff with his presence.

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There are no supermarkets in Iraq. Most produce comes direct from the farm. (Courtesy Matt Sanchez)

Today, at Prosperity, sandbags are stacked alongside the columns, extra protection against possible shrapnel from a stray mortar round. The main reception room, the exclusive residence where perhaps the heads of state gathered for leisurely discussion before the business of business, is now a gym and quite possibly the most luxurious fitness center in the entire American industrial-military complex. Marble steps lead to the free weights. While pumping iron, soldiers can admire the millennial craftsmanship of Baghdadi artisans whose forefathers built the hanging gardens of Babylon – one of the wonders of the Ancient World.

The manmade lakes intended to keep the vegetation green and flourishing despite the merciless heat have been expanded. The 4th Squadron 9th Cavalry has converted one pond into a swimming pool complete with the cavalry crest, the silhouette of a lone horse against a yellow backdrop painted on the pool’s floor.

Prosperity is on the border of the International Zone, the highly fortified, severely restricted security breathing space where embassies attempt to do business and only the most vetted of Iraqis are allowed to enter.

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Afternoon, when many Iraqis abandon the streets during peak heat hours, but the military, in full body armor, continues to patrol. (Courtesy Matt Sanchez)

From FOBs like Prosperity, units descended into the surrounding neighborhoods to keep a semblance of order and defend Iraqis from terrorist attack.

One such attack occurred on what was formerly the most famous street in Baghdad – Haifa. The street is more of a boulevard with wide three-lane roads in both directions divided by a broad center park where Baghdadis found shade under green trees and greener grass.

Once lined with caf?s, merchants and restaurants, after 2004 the bright lights dimmed and the vibrant boulevard became a veritable ghost town – the parks becoming staging grounds for IED attacks or foxholes for sniper fire.

On Jan. 6, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Brigade, 6th Iraqis Army Division transition team, a long title more readily pronounceable as the 3-5/6 MiTT, led by Maj. Chris Norrie and First Sgt. Joseph McFarlane were attacked on Haifa Street in a complex ambush. Taking small arms fire was very common in certain neighborhoods of Baghdad during 2005-2006. Weapons are everywhere, and if you’re bored, unemployed, annoyed or timid about jihad, the opportunity of popping off a few rounds in the direction of an American soldier is tantalizing and all too common.

It’s the complex attacks – attacks that will use a decoy, attempt to guide the target into a killing zone and then finish the job – that are far less common in Iraq. The enemy will shoot and run long before facing a better trained and equipped military. Chris Norrie found himself in a unique situation when sniper fire, RPGs and machinegun fire from multiple sources hit his vehicle. That day, in the early afternoon, the 3-5/6 Rogues who were tasked with training the Iraqi military were put through a live-fire exercise that would test the mettle of Iraqi soldiers.

During the Haifa attack, Norrie and his men saw the best and the worst of the Iraqi forces. The Battalion operations officer who froze and refused to dismount, Maj. Norrie himself left his vehicle to rally the Iraqi troops. Some were despondent, but some responded. Capt. Imjed with Sgt. First Class Mohammed, both Iraqi soldiers, risked their lives to suppress machinegun fire from a shooter who had wounded an American gunner.

It is a twist of fate that a member of the Iraqi Army would risk his life to help a member of a formerly invading army – the United States. But Baghdad, the backdrop for the poems of “One Thousand and One Nights,” is filled with surrealistic facts that join a frayed past to a disjointed present.

Six months later, I was with the 4-9 Cavalry out of Texas. A group of the younger guys complained that Haifa Street was boring, nothing was happening. This platoon was about to transition from patrolling Haifa and spend the rest of their tour manning an entry control point near the Green Zone. A common complaint I’ve heard from soldiers throughout Iraq is that their work doesn’t involve as much “action” as they thought they would see. Several soldiers have told me, “I expected it to be worse than this.” That is in direct contrast to those who have experienced brief but terrifying moments and are content with the relative peace. With time and circumstance, Baghdad, the millennial city, continues to change.


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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.

A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.


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