Mortars crash the party as US hands back Saddam's palace

By Kim Sengupta

BAGHDAD: The handing-over of Saddam Hussein's palace in Tikrit was supposed to give the Americans a chance to show that the insurgency had been beaten and the vast complex could be given back to local Iraqis.

Among those present were the two most powerful US officials in the country and the international media. But just as a senior US officer was describing the transfer as a potent sign of normality returning in Saddam's hometown, a mortar round landed.

American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and American military commander General George Casey were rushed to safety. After a brief hiatus, proceedings continued with provincial governor Hamad Hamoud Shagtti receiving the palace keys.

There are 136 buildings, 18 of them palaces, in the 4km sq site with gardens rolling down to the Tigris. It was built by Saddam for his mother in 1991 with marble imported - through third parties - from Italy at the same time as Iraqis were suffering from United Nations sanctions and 10 years of war.

After the last war it had been used as an American headquarters.

US Colonel Billy Buckner said: "Although 28 other Coalition operating bases have already been turned over to Iraqi Security Forces' control this year, the Tikrit Palace complex is the most significant thus far."

The regional Iraqi administration plans to turn the complex into a theme park featuring Saddam memorabilia. "The people did not get to see this place when Saddam was in power, although it was made out of their money," said provincial official Rashid Abdullah. "They have every right to see it, and when Iraq becomes a tourist destination, we can expect to see foreign tourists coming."

- INDEPENDENT

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