BABYLON, Iraq (Reuters) - Revenge and romance define the fate of one of Saddam Hussein’s sumptuous palaces, to which Iraqis who suffered under his rule return to vandalize and others flock to honeymoon in a rare oasis of luxury.
The monolithic stone structure sits on a man-made hill overlooking the ancient city of Babylon, 100 km (62 miles) south of Baghdad, a naked attempt to compete with the grandeur of the millennia-old structures below.
Grand marble halls, stunning views of the Euphrates river and beautifully carved wall panels could make the building a handsome conference center or museum, but six years after Saddam’s fall, Iraq is still struggling to encourage tourists.
“We’ve had to stop people visiting a month ago. They’re coming to take revenge, breaking things and leaving graffiti,” said Burkan Jabbar, deputy director of the palace grounds and associated buildings, which have been turned into a resort.
Iraqi authorities had planned to make use of the building but ran out of money for its rehabilitation after a fall in oil prices from last year dented Iraq’s oil-dependent budget.
Nearby, the Babylon ruins are in need of repair and far from ready for tourists. Although security has improved greatly in Iraq, attacks are still common and keep most tourists away.
The palace, one of several constructed by Saddam, was built in 1988, before U.N. sanctions thrust many Iraqis into malnourishment and deprived others of needed medicine.
Looted after U.S. troops invaded in 2003, the palace also shows more recent signs of destruction. Fresh graffiti covers the walls, and the stench of urine makes it difficult to enter bathrooms once famed for their gold fittings.
“Saddam, please clean the bathroom after you’ve used it,” reads one message in a filthy bathroom, now stripped bare.
A hoop had been nailed to a delicately carved wooden panel of arabesques, converting a regal hall into a basketball court.
“Power would never have reached you if it had remained in the hands of those before you,” read one poetic piece of graffiti, a famous Arab proverb on the transience of power.
“Saddam is a bastard,” read one more blunt statement.
Birds fluttered about the ceilings of the ornately plastered halls, having flown in through the building’s smashed windows.
The palace is not all bad news for Iraqi tourism. Its guest house has been hugely popular with newlyweds after it was converted into a hotel and is still receiving guests.
Once meant for dignitaries and Saddam’s army of guards, only one man now guards the palace, kept company by two pet kittens.
The guesthouse rooms cost up to about $170 a night, and the vast presidential suite features a flatscreen TV and gold colored furniture in keeping with the palace’s mood.
Its gardens have been well kept, and the smell of flowers wafts on the summer breeze. The grounds feature a banquet hall with a giant chandelier and a ceiling festooned with arabesques.
The spot is a rare oasis of calm and beauty in a country ravaged by war, explaining its popularity with honeymooners.
In the banquet hall, original Arabic script praises Saddam: “Oh Saddam, flower of Iraq, whose laugh lights up the land.”
The hall’s cupola is adorned with self-given names for Saddam, like “the warrior,” “the victorious” and “the brave.”
Such motifs are usually used in mosques to praise God.
When asked what he thought of the hall, now a restaurant, customer Ali Turky smiled and repeated the old proverb on power.
“I hope the current authorities aspire to Saddam’s level of construction,” he added, sweeping his gaze across the hall.
“But not his level of oppression.”
Editing by Missy Ryan