VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu went into one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces near the international airport in Baghdad on Monday. She spoke about the visit with VOA's Kevin Lynch in our London News Center, who began by asking her to describe her location
Ryu: I have come out on a patrol this morning with the first brigade of the third infantry division to a palace that belonged to Saddam Hussein. This is not a residential palace. This appears to be more of a palace of high-level dignitaries to hold meetings and those kinds of functions. But inside are absolutely palatial marble beautiful buildings. There's not a whole lot of damage to the buildings. It was found pretty much abandoned. We found some defensive positions of bunker type of things outside, but they have been abandoned.
Lynch: Alisha, can you tell us if the U.S. forces encountered much resistance getting to the palace.
Ryu: Well, we understand that there was some resistance. There were seven Syrian fighters, fighters of Syrian origin, who were brought here by the special Republican Guards and told to defend this palace. They were given guns and ordered to stay on guard. And we encountered a little bit of fire as we were coming in. The Bradley fighting vehicles responded and I believe two of them have been killed, one has been captured and there are four still missing. The U.S. forces are still looking for them at the moment.
Lynch: Alisha, what happened to the Republican Guard that was at the palace?
Ryu: We don't know. The grounds here are abandoned for the most part. Most of the things inside have been cleaned out. There's only some furniture left, and some dishes and things like that in the kitchen area. But it seems like they were systematically cleaned out and packed away and no one knows exactly where the contents of the palace have gone. There was certainly no heavy defense guarding this place when we came in, so I think they expected this place to be over-run at some point and took precautions to get whatever was inside out.
Lynch: What part of the city is this palace in?
Ryu: This is actually a little bit outside of the airport on the southwest side of the city. And we are in a sector that has about three of this kind of palaces. We saw two of them yesterday. They were guesthouses for VIPs and they were similarly opulent. They were very lavishly decorated with marbled and very well appointed places. We don't quite know how many of this type of palaces are in Baghdad. I've heard the number 18, and there are two under construction.
Lynch: Alisha, can you tell us about any activities in the center of the city now?
Ryu: The second brigade of the third infantry division is there, inside the city. They're in the center of Baghdad. I was told minutes ago that the huge statue of Saddam Hussein has been blown up by U.S. forces there, in a symbolic gesture. And that just occurred minutes ago. So they seem to have control over some sectors of the town that they didn't have a few days ago, and certainly yesterday they felt more comfortable going into those sectors. We heard artillery fire all day today and so we know that there have been some contacts, but there doesn't seem to be that kind of heavy resistance they encountered the first time they went into the city and encountered small arms fire and a lot of these paramilitary guys.
Lynch: Alisha, can you tell us whether you'll be staying in the city, or is this a probe, will you be leaving it again, or do you think you'll be in Baghdad for a while?
Ryu: I think that they feel comfortable enough that they can cordon off the sections of the city for security and create a perimeter around it. Already, the city has been almost encircled, meaning that there are U.S. forces all around the outskirts of the city, and it's been sealed off. And the city has been, for the most part, fairly well isolated. Most of the traffic in and out of the city is being monitored very carefully, and there doesn't seem to be much resistance to that. So, I think they feel a new sense of confidence that they can get the city under coalition control very soon.