As I got more comfortable with the job and figured out a routine, plus got to know some of the people I was working with, I was able to get out and explore the vast areas near the airport under the control of U.S. and coalition forces. Dominating the center of our compound was a large artificial lake dotted with a couple of small islands and stocked with fish. The whole area had been a walled-off, well-watered, rest and relaxation spot for the Hussein family and upper-level Baath Party members. Though somewhat rundown, bombed, and shot up, it was still kind of nice.
Baath Headquarters, Baghdad – now inside a U.S. base
The Baath Party headquarters where the whole war started with missiles targeting Saddam was just on the other side of the lake. The building was partly collapsed from the attack but even damaged and ransacked you could see how impressive it had once been. In a desert country control of water shows power, and the headquarters had water on three sides and even little inlets designed to let the lake flow through the building, even the central courtyard was given over to water – all a unique expression of desert power.
Plenty of stories and rumors floated around about the buildings and complex. At least one of the islands, reachable only by boat, was said to have been a ‘rape house’ where Uday Hussein imprisoned some of his victims before tiring and disposing of them. In a desert country where few can swim, the agony of being unchained and free to move around only 50 short yards from possible escape, yet having no way of getting across the water, must have been a separate torture all its own.
In another part of our compound was a very small man-made hill cut through in several places with tiny tunnels and passageways. Now stinking of piss and filth, at one time it was a play area built for the Hussein grandkids to climb and explore. Cleaned up and looked at from a kid’s viewpoint, it would have been a great play area.
With a couple of the guys from work we drove over to the next base, the headquarters of coalition military operations in Iraq. They operated from a huge palace, much nicer than ours. In the lobby there was even a throne Hussein used to supposedly sit on – now it’s got to be the most photographed chair in the world. It seemed that every passing soldier, civilian, and visitor got a shot of themselves in the big chair. Every time I had to go over to the other palace for a meeting there was a new crop of people getting their throne pictures.
The other palace towered over all the nearby buildings and was a warren of offices and coalition personnel. One minute you’d see a general cruise by with his staff, another you’d see an undercover ops guy walking by to a secret briefing. The giant palace also offered great Baghdad and base views from its upper reaches, better even than from our little palace.
One of the things that view revealed was the giant extent of our neighboring base. Ours was a small community; theirs was a city unto its own.
Barracks and trailer park living quarters were everywhere, they had a couple of dining facilities that made our place look like a shack, a huge PX, a Burger King (operating from a trailer and with a line out the door), huge parking and repair areas for equipment from Blackhawks to HUMVEEs, and offices for everything from finance to records. Living in a trailer park while working in a palace was not how I imagined my time in the warzone, but it seemed the quickest and easiest way to get these camps up and running.
Driving from place to place in the vast, walled-off compounds revealed how comfortable life would have been for the dictator and his elite. Though Hussein kept on the move for many of his last years in power, shifting places every couple of days to avoid attacks, being able to use such facilities, or at least know your family and valued underlings could use them, must have helped make life on the run a little easier to bear.
Entrance to Baath Party Headquarters