Since seizing the airport in Baghdad on Saturday, U.S. forces have been moving swiftly to take control of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's palaces in the capital. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu was with the 1st Brigade of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division on Monday when it seized a palace complex near the airport.
We learned about the mission to seize the palace at a briefing early Monday at the 2nd Brigade's temporary headquarters inside the newly renamed Baghdad International Airport. Straining to be heard over the sound of artillery fire booming across the city, the commander of 1st Brigade's 3rd Battalion, 69th Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Rock Marcone, explains the plan.
"Then we will run in with my infantry team. We will move in the objective area, which is Saddam Hussein's palace here and we will clear it with an engineer squad and a demo [demolition] team and an EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] team," Lieutenant Marcone said.
The palace is one of 18 lavish compounds in Iraq built for Saddam's personal use. A satellite photo, on display next to Lieutenant Colonel Marcone, reveals it is surrounded by a wide moat on all sides and flanked by several other buildings and barracks. It is a sprawling complex, extending more than one square kilometer.
Shortly after the briefing, 30 M-1 Abrams tanks, 28 Bradley fighting vehicles, and a dozen gun-mounted HumVees file into formation and begin to move out. The commander of the 1st Brigade, Colonel Will Grimsley, said the unit will need to attack with maximum firepower.
"I would rather come in with overwhelming force, secure the outer cordon to protect from any kind of incursion that might try to come in and get the inner cordon and do the search that way," Colonel Grimsley said. "As the lead tank in the convoy nears the entrance of the palace grounds, explosions ring out. "They could be in contact."
Colonel Grimsley relays a message he has received from battalion commander Marcone. "Just engaged and killed a sniper team, we think. So, I have got infantrymen up there clearing it. They will check out who they are, see who they are by uniform," he said.
Two snipers had been guarding the pathway to the palace entrance. Their dead bodies lie inside a guard tower. Another guard is captured. The prisoner tells U.S. soldiers that four others fled shortly before the Americans arrived.
On the palace grounds, Colonel Grimsley points to evidence of many more guards who have abandoned their posts. "Those are defensive bunkers, defensive positions. It appears everybody is either dead or has run away, except for the sniper team," he explained.
U.S. troops quickly secure the outer perimeter and move toward the palace itself.
It is a beautiful three-story, Mesopotamian-style structure with high arches and enormous pillars. A wide bridge curves over a blue-watered moat that separates the guest-houses and guard barracks from the palace.
With their M-16 rifles at the ready, several dozen U.S. soldiers storm through the front door of the palace and begin a room-to-room search.
No one is found. Aside from a huge, ornate crystal chandelier in the foyer, large pieces of furniture and ubiquitous pictures of Saddam Hussein on the walls, the rooms are empty.
But the opulence of the marble interior leaves many, like Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Smith, amazed by such a display of wealth in a desperately poor country. "I have never seen anything but marble in here. And you can see in the rest of the country that there is nothing comparable," he said.
Several kilometers away in downtown Baghdad, the 2nd Brigade reports the unit has seized two other palaces. One soldier smiles wearily at the news. Three down, more than a dozen left to go, he said.