IRAQIS who left Baghdad this week have confirmed American claims that President Saddam Hussein has spent more than £1.22bn since 1990 building new palaces and renovating old ones.
"They are like the palaces in stories of Sinbad and Arabian Nights," said an Iraqi builder involved in putting the final touches to the biggest and most elaborate of President Saddam's 30 or so palatial projects.
The builder - who would not disclose his name - described the palace of Maqar-el-Tharthar, which is built on the surface of a lake north west of Baghdad.
"It is at least four or five times bigger than the White House," said the Iraqi worker, who had a brief stop in London on his way to join his family in the United States. The builder said his good record in working on 15 different palaces for the president since the invasion of Kuwait has enabled him to pay only the equivalent of $5,000 for his exit visa and that of his wife and two children instead of $15,000.
"But I was careful not to show them that I can work with alabaster and that I know how to polish and treat marble," said the builder, who specialises in stone and plaster decoration, "otherwise I wouldn't be talking to you here."
He said that President Saddam's grand projects - and he puts the number of new palaces at around 30 in addition to the 19 which existed before the Gulf war - have created a great demand for masons and workers who are skilled in polishing and recycling broken marble.
To obtain marble and allabaster, whose import is banned by the United Nations, the Iraqis have taken to plundering ruins and tombs dating from the Babylonian era. Tons of marble looted from archaeological sites were used in building a new palace on the shore of an artificial lake, created by diverting the Tigris near Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit.
"While building the Tikrit palace," said the Iraqi builder, "we heard that the President [Saddam] was very angry because the US and Britain were banning the import of marble."
The UN sanctions committee, which allows import licences for other building materials, has pointedly turned down Iraqi applications to import marble, alabaster and water fountains - favourite items in President Saddam's palaces. The American ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, canvassing against lifting the sanctions in the UN last year, showed Security Council members satellite photographs of buildings claimed to be new palaces which the president has erected since the war; but there was no eye-witness confirmation on the ground or pictures from inside Iraq.
The Iraqi builder also said he has been involved in renovating the Republican Palace in the capital, which has tripled in size, the Camp Taj retreat north of Baghdad, and the old palace of Baiji in Tikrit as well as a palace complex built on an island in lake Abu Gharib west of the capital. He was amazed by two projects. The first is a complex ofthree palaces connected by bridges over a maze of man-made canals and lakes adjacent to the ruins of Babylon.
But the most impressive presidential residence, according to the worker, is Qasr-Shatt al-Arab, a complex of buildings and four artificial lakes built along the waterway which separates Iraq and Iran.
"One of the French experts working there told us it was bigger than the palace at Versailles," he said.
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