The broader picture: The mother of all palaces

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The Independent Culture
PERCHED LIKE an eagle on top of one of Iraqi Kurdistan's highest mountains, Saddam Hussein's palace at Gara dominates the land for miles around. The air is pure and cool, the mountains empty, their villages razed in the 1980s by those ordered to build three splendid holiday homes for the Iraqi leader.

A helicopter landing-pad stands ready a few hundred feet away. And, down the winding mountain path, a massive ante-chambered cave containing a network of channels a yard deep surrounded by concrete platforms, apparently intended for military use, stands half- complete. Today, the palaces, designed by Saddam's Iraqi architects and decked with Italian marble and green tiles from Siena, are the prize of the Kurds. They looted them during their uprising in March 1991 and scrawled their anger toward the Iraqi leader in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish and English all over the pristine plastered walls. Beneath the pastel stucco disguising a modern air-conditioning system, pictures of Saddam are chalked with expletives and pornographic drawings.

A few miles away, the Roman-pillared Ashawa palace, where Saddam filled an enormous lake ready for freshwater fish, is becoming a tourist attraction - the lake doubling as a swimming pool. A Kurdish family still wealthy enough to run a car sips Pepsi on the patio beside the waterfall where a presidential casino was planned. A bus-load of local football players spreads a picnic under a eucalyptus tree. And in what appears to be an open-air restaurant, the man counting the takings in a tiny tool-box till says he serves whisky and barbecued steak for dinner. Sometimes, he says, eight or nine cars visit the palace in a week.

But the 30 peshmerga guards who police the palace buildings night and day are a salutory reminder that the Kurds have a fragile hold on their new possession. They say they are there to stop the looting of precious stones, but visitors sense what most Kurds in the region feel every day: the ever-watchful eye of Saddam Hussein.

Weekly attacks in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq are seen as proof that Baghdad's

highly-organised Mukhabarat intelligence network is active here. The Iraqi president has made public statements in recent weeks which have been interpreted as threats to Western aid workers and United Nations officials, and, in two separate incidents, Kurds have handed themselves in to the local authorities, saying they had accepted money from Iraq to carry out terrorism in Kurdish towns and cities. The destruction caused by years of anti-Kurdish policies here, coupled with the economic effects of two sets of sanctions - one by the international community on Iraq, the other by Baghdad on the northern region - have brought poverty to many. The temptation to collaborate for money sometimes proves irresistible.

Massoud Barzani, the leader of one of the Iraqi Kurds' two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told the Kurds after the uprising that they must not attack the palaces as symbols of the Iraqi regime. These buildings, he said, were now part of the Kurdish heritage and must be preserved. But, as long as Kurdish officials in the newly elected parliament in Arbil wrestle with problems which demand financial and political solutions they do not have, the glistening tiles that remain on the roof of the Ashawa palace will remind the Kurds that today's freedom could easily become tomorrow's history. -

(Photograph omitted)