Originally published April 16, 2004.

It looks, from a distance, like graffiti. In reality, it’s a rough sketch that Saddam Hussein once drew on his wall to show how he wanted the pool house expanded inside his palace compound overlooking the Tigris River.

Saddam is long gone. But his hasty, impatient scrawl remains, because on that day back when his word was law, a worker dutifully engraved every ink mark into the finely polished marble.

“Anything Saddam did became permanent record,” explained Lt. Col. John Jansen of Augusta during a two-hour tour of the palace on Wednesday. “He wrote all his notes here, and this right here is his signature. And somebody followed him and chiseled it out. When (Saddam) came back, if it wasn’t built to what he said, then . . .” 

Heads would roll?

“Probably,” Jansen said, marveling at the oddity.

Once one of Saddam’s 60 or so gold-plated getaways scattered all over Iraq, the palace is now Camp Freedom – headquarters for Task Force Olympia and the nerve center for the myriad military, political and social service operations that extend outward from this city of 1.7 million into northern Iraq.

It is also home away from home for Jansen, commander of the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, and 23 other members of the battalion – all plucked from their unit at Camp Marez to serve as the engineering clearinghouse for what is commonly called AO (Area of Operations) North.

“This is amazing,” said Capt. Dave Bouffard, who had to close his surveying business in Westbrook when he was activated by the Guard last fall, and now works as the task force’s civil-military engineering liaison. “We trained for 15 years in a tent and the rain, standing in mud. And now in the middle of combat we’re standing in a castle.”

The engineering office, on the second floor of the palace, is a large room with marble floors, 20-foot-high ceilings, and corner windows that command breathtaking views of the river and the city beyond.

It’s Saddam’s old master bedroom.

The palace’s massive stone buildings, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and sprawling landscape, adorned with inlaid tile portraits of Saddam, flower gardens and oversized statues of eagles and lions, offer simultaneously a startling glimpse of Iraq’s gruesome past, and its present and future.

Almost all of the buildings emerged undamaged from last year’s invasion of Iraq – thanks largely to the fact that most Iraqi soldiers manning the palace dropped their weapons and ran as U.S. troops converged on Mosul.

But before the military could move in, the Iraqis, who for 20 years looked up at this compound from the dusty streets of Mosul, paid their first visits ever – and took souvenirs.

“Thousands of people just came in and took out everything they could get,” Jansen said. “Every piece of electrical wire was gone.”

So were the light fixtures, the toilets and sinks, the handrails that lined the marble staircases, the windows, the ornate wooden doors . . .

“They were masters,” Jansen said, looking up at planters of artificial flowers that now hang where chandeliers once shone. “If we’d left it long enough, the whole thing would have been destroyed. They’ll take apart the (concrete) buildings themselves just to get to the re-bar.”

Soldiers who first arrived here understood the lust that drove the looters, Jansen said. “But then they realized, `Gee, we have to stop this and save something for the future.’ “

And at the same time, preserve a window into Iraq’s brutal past. All over the compound, signs of Saddam’s ruthless ego remain.

The indoor pool in the palace basement was reserved for one person and one person only: Saddam. Anyone else who dared enter the water would be killed.

The pool is empty now. The spacious tile floor around it serves as a crowded barracks for soldiers awaiting a new shipment of “connex” living cubicles.

Across the front lawn in the mansion-like pool house, two huge tile mosaics loom over the main stairway.

One shows a smiling Saddam towering over a somber old woman dressed in black, his hand placed patronizingly atop her head.

In the other, Saddam sits with a young girl in his lap. His left hand holds her forearm in a grip that suggests more restraint than comfort. Saddam, once again, is beaming. The girl’s eyes look sad. 

Then there are two dormitories, both damaged by artillery shells, on the other side of the palace. Dozens of women once lived there – their sole purpose to satisfy Saddam and his Baath Party cronies.

“My understanding is that if you had a good-looking daughter, you wanted to make sure she was hidden,” Jansen said, staring at the bombed-out buildings.

A short distance north of the palace sits an “absolutely huge” lake filled with what were once called “Saddam’s fish.”

“If you were caught fishing, you were dead,” Jansen said. “Everything he did was like that.”

Now the same Iraqis who once feared Saddam work alongside the array of military, government and privately contracted organizations crammed into every square foot of the compound.

Some of the Iraqis operate small shops in the pool house, selling imitation Rolex watches for $20 to $60, just-released movies on DVD for $2 apiece, cartons of cigarettes – $3 for generic menthols, $5 for Marlboro Lights.

At the main entrance to the palace, an enterprising Iraqi barber now operates the Camp Freedom Barber Shop.

Other Iraqis work outside, restoring the flower beds and lawns that withered and died after the war. Efficient they are not.

“They sometimes use hand mowers,” Jansen said. “But there’s a whole area up by the palace that a bunch of them trimmed (by picking the grass) with their hands.”

The ultimate goal, Jansen said, is to turn the whole palace compound back to the Iraqis, probably for use as a provincial government center.

“I really get excited at times,” he said. “What you’re seeing, when you get us collectively all together, is that we’re building a democratic government out of a regime. It’s not easy, but if it takes hold, it will be a great thing.”

Still, for the small Maine detachment here, this is also an exercise in frustration. They live and work only five miles from their 500-plus comrades at Camp Marez, but many days it feels much farther.

Jansen attends two in-depth daily briefings at the palace as a member of Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham’s senior staff – bracketing a daily routine that starts at 7 a.m. and usually ends around 10 p.m. The schedule allows him time to convoy across Mosul only once each week to meet with the command staff of the 133rd. (In his absence, Maj. Dwaine Drummond of Weeks Mills oversees the battalion’s operations at Camp Marez.)

What’s more, working in a palace isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Camp Freedom has become a favorite target for insurgents, who launch mortars and rocket-propelled grenades from the nearby Ninawa Woods and the dense neighborhoods outside palace grounds.

Last Saturday, a mortar hit the camp’s physical fitness building – injuring 16 soldiers exercising inside. Wednesday afternoon, another mortar sailed past the front of the palace and landed on a nearby hill, wounding two soldiers. (None of the injured was from the 133rd.)

Maj. Norm Michaud of Litchfield, operations officer for the task force engineering office, hesitated when asked how he likes working in Saddam’s old bedroom.

“Being away from the troops is probably the biggest part of it,” said Michaud. “To be honest with you . . . I don’t enjoy it here.”

He admits that when he first came here, he was “in the same awe as everybody else when you walk in and say `Wow! How can one man have so much when the rest of the country is so poor?’ “

Now, Michaud finds little time to dwell on the past. Like the rest of the 133rd engineering detachment here, he’s too focused on the ever-changing drawing board that is northern Iraq.

Michaud looked around the cavernous office and smiled.

“It’s like when you go into your office – just a place to work,” he said. “The thrill of the palace is gone.”

Staff Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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