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Starving Iraq plans biggest mosque

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq plans to start building the largest mosque in the world, with room for 100,000 worshippers, in the heart of Baghdad in a few months' time. Although four million Iraqis are estimated by the UN to be on the verge of famine, the Saddam Grand Mosque will cost an estimated $250m to $300m (pounds 160m to pounds 190m).

The Iraqi leader first thought of the project in 1994, and 10 design teams have almost finished their work. Construction will start at the beginning of next year on a dome 600ft (180m) in diameter. It will rise from the centre of an artificial lake dug on the 500-acre site of the old municipal airport near the railway station in the centre of Baghdad. The area was heavily bombed during the Gulf war.

Iraqi engineers are worried about where they will get the equipment and construction materials in the face of UN sanctions. "We will need pile drivers, excavators, chemical additives for the cement and steel reinforcement bars," said one associated with the scheme.

Despite these difficulties, there is no sign of any slowdown in the work, which Saddam is backing. A pavilion is being built on site for his use during construction. He reputedly said that he "will be the chief engineer" for the project.

The reasons for building a giant mosque when the country is so short of resources include the government's desire to improve its Islamic credentials and to underscore its belief in its future.

The mosque will consist of a 210ft-high dome, supported on piles going 120ft into the ground. In addition an Islamic university housed in eight towers, each 650ft high, will surround the lake. Although Iraq may lack some of the equipment needed for construction, almost no other projects are being built, so all resources can be concentrated on the mosque.

Iraqi engineers say the only mosque in the world which might be considered larger is in Mecca, but is not covered. Part of the idea is apparently to show that despite the embargo introduced in 1990, Iraq can still carry out great projects.

Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador at the UN, has criticised Iraq for squandering money on building presidential palaces. During the Iran- Iraq war the Iraqi leadership constructed big memorials to show its political durability.