Iraq on Monday unveiled an opulent renovated palace intended to host an Arab League Summit next month and send the message that the country has moved beyond Saddam Hussein and the US Army generals who were its previous tenants.
In the first viewing of Iraq’s Government Palace, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari took a group of reporters on a tour of elaborately restored ballrooms, manicured gardens, and newly designed presidential suites reserved for some of the 22 invited heads of state.
“You see – it’s completely ready,” said a delighted Mr Zebari pointing out the plush new Turkish furniture. “I’m very happy for the country and the people. They can do things.”
The former Republican palace was built in the 1950s for a young King Faisal, who was assassinated before he could live there. Saddam Hussein more than doubled its size, ordering his initials carved into the stonework and affixing huge bronze likenesses of his head to the roof. Later suspected of harboring evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the palace was searched by a team of diplomats during the era of UN weapons inspections.
After Saddam was toppled, US occupation authorities took it over with soldiers sleeping on cots and draping laundry over the marble staircases and State Department contractors holding parties by the pool.
Few of those traces remain.
In one of the conference rooms, a mural commissioned by Saddam showing Scud missiles being launched has been painted over with a busy panorama of Iraq’s ancient history. His initials have been erased. Gone too, is evidence of the damage from rockets and mortars repeatedly hitting the palace complex for much of the past eight years.
The renovation, although carried out by a Turkish firm with the logistical capability that Iraq still lacks, is determinedly nationalist in style. In a main hall where the heads of state are to meet, 18 bronze statues – restored to their original glory – represent each of the Iraqi governorates. An abstract stone panel – gleaming again – is entitled Beloved Baghdad.
Mr. Zebari says that while not every head of state will attend the Arab League summit next month, it will go ahead on May 10 and 11.
“The level or participation will depend on each country’s position. I can’t presume that a country that is running through difficult days really would venture to come but there are others who will.
The unrest sweeping the region has ironically made war-torn Iraq one of the most stable countries in the Arab world. Its descent into civil war after seeing its own dictator toppled has made it a cautionary tale.
“Iraq has something to offer to its brothers – how it has reached where it has through a hard and difficult way,” says Zebari.
Few if any of the summit leaders are expected to stay overnight in the Iraqi capital but the palace has room for hundreds of guests. Others will be housed at the renovated Rashid Hotel, also unveiled for the media on Monday.
The British contractors and the Kempinski luxury hotel chain managing the project have retained the original features of the hotel, built at enormous expense in the 1980s for a non-aligned summit which never take place. But the stained furniture and years of neglect have been replaced by gleaming fixtures and the prosperous bustle of a luxury hotel.
“I think by the end of the day we will see the first first-class hotel in Baghdad,” says Iraqi Ambassador Zaid Noori, an engineer by training who in charge of the summit renovations.
He says they have no intention though of reviving the bugging devices and hidden cameras believed to have been used to spy on journalists and other guests under Saddam’s regime.
“This is just a hotel,” he assures the group.