Fishing returns to Saddam's palaces – with a different cast

Tuesday 15 April 2008 00:00
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Saddam Hussein enjoyed fishing, although not always in a particularly relaxed fashion – he would sometimes order grenades to be lobbed into the water if the fish were not biting. The catch would then be served to guests who would be suitably honoured to be dining on the results of the president's sporting prowess.

Many of Saddam's 52 palaces had access to water, the premier among them, the Maqar-el-Tharthar, north of Baghdad, beside Lake Tharthar, was a complex of 45 marble mansions where members of his coterie and his sons Uday and Qusay would also go on angling trips, surrounded by bodyguards.

A year after the invasion by US-led forces in 2003, the fishing jetties of Maqar, the once fabled "Green Palace", lay empty, with tumbleweed from the gardens blowing into the lake. American troops collected Saddam "souvenirs" – to be followed by a more comprehensive looting by locals. But now fishing is back at the palace. The Baghdad Angler's Club and School of Flyfishing hold their regular meetings on the various former homes of Saddam in the Iraqi capital every Sunday, although these are sometimes interrupted by mortar and rocket fire.

The members are US and British military and officials, and occasionally the few foreign journalists that are still left in Iraq. A tournament held two months ago was featured in a Florida TV fishing show hosted by Joe Mercurio, who flew in to donate rods and tackle from the show's sponsors. The club has a website – baghdadflyfishing.com, with a gallery of photos of soldiers showing off their catch.

Fishing stories can, of course, be as unreliable as war stories. "You need that photo, or if you say you caught a 24-incher no one is going to believe you," said Warrant Officer Leslie "Scott" Henry, a 19-year-old helicopter pilot specialising in investigating air crashes. Fishing, he says, offers a bit of sanity in the middle of the mayhem. His female colleague, Warrant Officer Stormy Ripley, agrees. "Anything that will get me close to the water helps me relax. There's something innocent about it in the midst of all this war," she told a Reuters reporter.

The normal catch is carp, which would be eaten at the cafes beside the Tigris in a much favoured dish called "mazgouf" in more peaceful times before the war, although the club has also had some luck with another kind of fish, asp. The best site, says WO Henry, is the half-built Victory Over the United States palace, which is now part of an American base.

"Carp eat off the bottom. They are garbage fish, they are just not very sexy," says WO Henry. The best way to catch them, he continues, is with wads of bacon swiped from the military dining hall, although he has experimented, with some success, using a small rubber squid filled with Philadelphia cheese.

The fish caught by the club, however, are no match for those Uday was supposed to have caught. He came first in a number of competitions, on occasions against semi-professional anglers. There were pictures of him with a rod and line, decked out in designer leather jackets and sunglasses, strewn on the floor of his palace after it was looted following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. But then, it was wiser not to beat Saddam's son at anything much. Other documents showed that he had come first in a class of 174 in every subject.

Life, however, was not always easy for him. "It is difficult being in the family of Hussein. People want to kill us," he wrote to an uncle once. But with all that stress, he found fishing therapeutic. "It makes a very nice change from our day-to-day lives," he scribbled beside one photograph taken at Maqar – sentiments echoed by the Baghdad Angler's Club, who have their own share of stress, with fighting continuing in the Iraqi capital five years after "liberation".

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