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Saddam’s bunker, a draw for tourists in Green Zone

(AFP) / 7 December 2005

BAGHDAD - Saddam Husseins underground bunker, surprisingly undamaged despite heavy US bombing in 2003, has become an informal tourist attraction for visitors and residents of Baghdad’s downtown Green Zone area.

US forces hurled two 900-kilo (2,000 pound) GBU-28 bunker-busting bombs at the building on the opening night of the US-led offensive to invade Iraq, March 19, 2003, according to the US military.

Over the next four days at least six more bunker-busters were dropped on the building, and the holes they smashed in the roof are still visible.

The blasts caused impressive damage to the six-story high steel and concrete structure, known as the Believers Palace, built atop the bunker.

US soldiers and visitors who tour the site today pose for pictures near giant craters in the palace, amid heaps of twisted steel rods, concrete blocks and charred marble slabs.

Souvenir hunters can still find crystals from the giant chandelier that once hung in the main hall.

Yet despite the whirlwind of destruction, most of the palace is still structurally sound.

And the bunker, which lies under the rubble, is virtually intact -- more than 20 years after it was built for 66 million dollars by the German firm Boswau and Knauer (Walter Bau-AG building group).

“Shock and awe”

Deep inside, the only light comes from flashlights carried by visitors, and the only sounds are their footsteps and a steady drip, drip, drip of water from a broken water pipe.

“We still can’t find the water main,” said Sergeant First Class Patrick McDonald, who works with a civil affairs unit and is the Green Zones de facto bunker expert.

“Even to this day some of the rooms have an inch of putrid water with some type of biological life.”

Saddams room is about the size of a small master bedroom in a suburban house and differs from the other rooms only by its tan wallpaper.

One of the last images of him as president was televised footage of a meeting he held with top aides in the 30-square-meter (320-square-foot) bunker conference room just before the “shock and awe” phase of the war began.

Karl Bernd Esser, the bunker architect, told Germany’s ZDF television when the war began that the structure he designed could survive anything short of a direct hit from a Hiroshima-style nuclear weapon.

Overall, the three-level, sprawling bunker is large enough to house 250 people, say US officials. It has an air filtration system, a large kitchen and was fully prepared for an attack with biological or chemical weapons.

It also has its own power supply. Its large generators, which are powerful enough to supply the whole Green Zone area with electricity, seem brand new.

“The only danger was that Saddam and his people would have been buried here,” said McDonald.

“But there are tunnels to get out that lead to the Tigris River,” some 200 meters (yards) away, he said.

Between the Believers Palace and the bunker was even more protection -- a two-floor “plug” -- a reinforced helmet of sorts to make up for one of the bunkers shortcomings: it was barely underground.

Most extensive bunker facility

A reinforced concrete box inside a box, the bunker was long ago stripped of any valuables, first by Iraqi looters as US troops entered Baghdad, and later by US troops seeking to furnish outside headquarters buildings.

Some of the recovered valuables are in storage, said McDonald.

“The high water table in Baghdad makes it difficult to build anything deep underground,” explained McDonald.

The “plug” consisted of two 25 centimetres (10-inch) thick false floors separated by one meter (three feet) of empty space.

“The false floors served to trick the smart bombs into thinking they have penetrated into the bunker,” McDonald said.

“As far as we know this is the most extensive bunker facility in the country,” McDonald said.

“There are a number of small single, or three and four room bunkers under different palaces, but this is the biggest one, and the most extensive.”

According to locals, Saddam used the bunker less than eight times since it was built, McDonald said, although he kept a staff to maintain its elaborate water, cooling, air filtration and electrical system.

Iraqs new government, which takes over in late December, will have to decide what to do with the site.

The structure is so well built it would be difficult to demolish, and the massive palace above makes it impossible to bury.

“So its left there for people like myself to give tours when I have the time,” said McDonald.

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