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Hussein's Palaces Brimming With Excess and Intrigue

October 05, 2002|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Crystal chandeliers glitter above polished marble floors. Velvet-covered chairs flank gold-topped tables. Bathrooms gleam with gold faucets and pink bidets. Brocade curtains drape plush canopy beds.

Those who have seen the inside of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's many palaces describe a world of opulent kitsch and lavish excess, rooms adorned with busts, statues and portraits of Hussein and protected by bullet-proof windows, 20-foot-high walls and guard towers.

But U.S. officials say that eight palace compounds also might contain evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons development, which Iraq pledged to give up after losing the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Gaining unfettered access to the sprawling sites is one of the Bush administration's key demands as it wrestles to win support at the United Nations and in world capitals for aggressive new inspections in Iraq.

Satellite photos indicate that Hussein has dug swimming pools, built mansions and made other major renovations at compounds that were bombed by U.S. and British forces in December 1998. The raids in Operation Desert Fox were launched in part because Iraq had obstructed U.N. disarmament efforts.

Several defectors say Hussein has hidden secret weapons research labs and other facilities in the palaces since 1998, but U.S. intelligence and other officials acknowledge that they don't know for sure.

"These are gigantic facilities, extremely well guarded, unknown underground networks with unknown equipment and unknown activities," said State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker. "We don't necessarily know what he's hiding in these things."

Some experts suspect that the insistence on surprise inspections of presidential compounds is mostly a matter of psychology.

"I don't think Hussein hides anything in those palaces," said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi-born Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies, a London think tank. "They know the palaces will be inspected. They know the palaces would be attacked in a military strike."

Getting inside is "more a matter of psychological value because it undermines the credibility of the regime. By inspecting palaces, you remove the immunity of the leadership, and that is a psychological blow," Alani said.

To some, the push on the presidential compounds is a case of diplomatic deja vu.

In 1997, Hussein's regime repeatedly blocked United Nations teams from entering the presidential compounds, saying such searches violated Iraq's "national sovereignty and dignity." Washington and London were furious, but Paris and Moscow backed Baghdad in the Security Council.

The crisis appeared to ease when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan negotiated an agreement with Iraq in February 1998 to permit palace inspections--but only if Baghdad had advance notice, and if "senior diplomats" escorted the weapons teams. That agreement is still in force, but it is likely to be superseded by new U.N. action.

Charles Duelfer, who was deputy chairman of the U.N. panel then responsible for disarming Iraq, says the 1998 agreement turned his searches of the palaces into "a circus."

Duelfer said the inspectors had hoped to find "an audit trail, purchasing documents, presidential directives or other documents" outlining precisely what Hussein had bought, what he had built, what he had hidden and more.

But advance notice gave Iraq time to empty rooms of nearly all file cabinets, documents, computers and equipment, Duelfer said. Even the furniture was removed from some buildings.

"We surveyed all of them, every inch of them," Duelfer said in an interview. "After six weeks' advance notice, of course there wasn't a speck of paper anywhere. They'd taken everything out."

Over an eight-day period in 1998, the U.N. weapons teams visited the Republican Palace, Kharkh and Radwaniyah compounds in Baghdad, as well as presidential compounds at Tikrit, Tharthar, Jabal Makhul, Mosul and Basra, U.N. records indicate. "It was clearly apparent that all sites had undergone extensive evacuation," Duelfer wrote in a 1998 summary of his inspections.

Iraqi officials portrayed the investigators as bumbling gumshoes, searching for Scud missiles under Hussein's bed. The presence of hundreds of Iraqi minders, as well as 20 ambassadors and other diplomats, didn't help.

The job was enormous. The lush, landscaped grounds cover 40 square miles and contain about 1,500 guesthouses, offices, warehouses, garages, sentry posts and other buildings, as well as man-made moats, fountains, waterfalls and lakes, according to a U.N. survey in 1998.

Still, the U.N. teams made progress. They prepared maps and sketches, using coordinates from global positioning devices. They shot photos from helicopters and on the ground. They took soil samples and, in at least one case, examined an underground sewer system.

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