Tikrit, Iraq – Saddam Hussein made his palaces a faux Babylonian paradise, but now his home town of Tikrit is seeking foreign investors to turn the late dictator’s playground into a tourist mecca.
Local officials see the 76 abandoned Saddam villas sprawled across hundreds of acres as potential gold mines for Tikrit’s cash-starved Salahuddin province.
“In fact there are 76 palaces in total, but the largest ones are Thulfiqar Palace in the northern part and Al-Farouq Palace in the southern part. We also have palaces in Makhol, on Makhol mountain and we have 23 palaces in south Tikrit and 17 palaces in north Tikrit. We also have 24 palaces in al-Shattiya site, and al-Shattiya is located in the Tigris River surrounded by water, six in Al-Awja and six in Makhol,” said Jawhar Hammad al-Fahal, the head of Salahuddin’s investment commission.
Saddam built big in Tikrit, his tribal stronghold about 95 miles north of Baghdad. He put up six palaces at his birthplace in the village of al-Awja, and made the Tikrit palace complex his largest.
Boasting artificial lakes and date orchards, the site totals 136 buildings and covers more than 1,000 acres, according to the U.S. Army. American troops used it as a base until turning it over to Iraqi authorities in November 2005.
“We call on world companies which invest in the tourism sector to come and invest. These villas are ready and they only need rehabilitation and a few other things to turn the area into a wonderful tourism site penetrated by three giant artificial lakes. Some of the villas are perching on one of the lakes while the rest are overlooking them. We hope that world investment companies, and the invitation is open for international companies, will come and start rehabilitating these villas,” Fahal said.
Many of the sand-colored buildings, often domed and turreted, are crumbling away near the Tigris River. Some are fenced off and still show heavy damage from the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Chandeliers hang in dusty halls and the marble finish has dropped off palace walls. A statue of a bow-wielding Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian king and lawgiver, adorns the outside of one building.
Fahal said Salahuddin would be no risk to foreign companies and was more secure compared to its neighboring provinces.
“Salahuddin province is the safest Iraqi province. When the violence cycle was at peak, Salahuddin was judged as the safest Iraqi province by U.S. and not Iraqi reports. Security was at a level of 66 percent and this gave the local authorities control over security. We call on almighty God to make our efforts a success to bring prosperity to this city. Investment in Salahuddin means an investment for Iraq as a whole,” he added.
Iraqi tourism caters heavily to Muslim pilgrims and is barely recovering after years of war and sectarian fighting. Iraqis seeking a getaway within the country tend to go to mountain resorts in the north.
Tikrit would not be the first Saddam palace to be turned into a resort. A guesthouse at a hulking palace at Babylon, 60 miles south of Baghdad, has become a popular spot for honeymooners.
Salahuddin’s stance underscores how keen Iraq is for outside investment. Deputy Industry Minister Adel Karim said Iraq could offer production-sharing deals with state companies to draw foreign investors.