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Babylon's New Conquerers Find City 'Enchanting' - 2003-05-16

In Iraq, U.S. Marines are now camped out alongside the ancient ruins of Babylon, and most of the sightseers these days are American soldiers.

As American military helicopters patrol the skies, scores of U.S. soldiers arrive at Babylon for a first-hand glimpse of the history of the nation they now control.

Little remains of Babylon's heyday, 2,600 years ago, when the renowned ruler Nebuchadnezzar sat on the throne, and the Hanging Gardens were a wonder of the world.

German archeologists excavated Babylon a century ago, and transferred most of its treasures to Berlin.

In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein ordered a massive restoration, using modern bricks to reconstruct the walls of Nebbuchadnezzar's palace. He had a special inscription written on some of the bricks.

"During the time of President Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, the protector of civilization, rebuilt this place, which belonged to Nebuchadnezzar," said tourist guide Muna Mohammed Joahd Ali when explaining what the bricks say, and how she feels about it. "He ruled Babylon in the Sixth Century [B.C.] Rebuilt in 1987-1988. But he damaged, damaged civilization. He damaged everything."

Ms. Ali says she was always afraid to talk to foreign visitors to Babylon when Saddam Hussein was in power, fearful she would say something that would bring the wrath of the regime down upon her.

She recalls when foreigners asked her about the majestic palace Saddam Hussein built on a hill overlooking the ruins, and how she had to lie to them about it.

"When the tourists asked me, 'What is this, Muna?' I said, 'This is a guest house for high delegations,'" she explained. "So when they wanted to take photos, I said, 'No please, it is forbidden. No photographs here. But why [they said], you said this is a guest house?' I couldn't say this was Saddam Hussein's palace."

The U.S. Marines' First Expeditionary Force is now headquartered in the palace, and keeps guard on the ruins, which were hit by looters in the early days of the American occupation.

Lieutenant Colonel Rick Long is a spokesman for the unit, and he is impressed by the history that surrounds him.

"Well, it's absolutely enchanting," said Colonel Long. "The Iraqi people are so rich with culture and history, and it's just absolutely magnificent. There's a beautiful sense of peace, I think, with a lot of this understanding of human civilization and all that's happened to us, since the early written time."

Colonel Long said the American occupation also will be historic when compared with that of previous armies that have captured Babylon.

"As you think about all the conquering forces that came through here, the Greeks, Alexander the Great, the Ottoman Empire, Ghengis Khan, I can't think of any that turned it back over to the Iraqi people, and that is exactly what we intend to do," he said.

The tour guide, Ms. Ali, says 100,000 people from around the ancient world used to live together in peace in Babylon, and she wants that spirit to live again now.

"Babylon before, it was like the United Nations. I hope also it is the same nowadays," she said. "Yeah, you know, we are coming from one root. I hope for my people here in Iraq, to forget their mistakes between Shia and Sunni. And we haven't. Up to now we haven't. But I hope in the future we live all together. Because ancient Iraq was the same. All together, they were friends. So, I hope like this. Inshalla. With goodwill."

This is a dream Ms. Ali says she never dared to share before. Fear still runs deep in her family. She says her husband and father have warned her to be cautious in speaking against Saddam Hussein, fearful he might come back. But Ms. Ali says she is no longer afraid. Her vision of a brighter future gives her strength.