Building an American University on grounds of Saddam’s palace is heavy on symbolism

The palace is becoming an enduring symbol of US imperial designs
Sunday 29/04/2018
A 2011 file picture showing a US soldier touring al-Faw Palace in Victory Base Compound in Baghdad before it was handed over to the Iraqi government. (Reuters)
Reinvented. A 2011 file picture showing a US soldier touring al-Faw Palace in Victory Base Compound in Baghdad. (Reuters)

Iraq’s al-Faw Palace, built by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and used by US forces as a war command centre, has been chosen for the site of Iraq’s third American University to be established by the end of 2019.

The Kurdish region of Iraq is home to the other two American Universities (AU) erected in the last decade.

Fifteen years ago, the broader collection of Saddam’s palaces was among sites high on the United States’ target list. Unlike other architectural crown jewels belonging to the regime, al-Faw had to be reinvented to be spared and was renamed Camp Victory. It housed 42,000 military personnel and 20,000 civilian staff.

Memoirs published by some of its former settlers capture happier times of social gatherings, private barbecues and flown-in entertainment, including WWE wrestlers, celebrity BMXers and skaters all invited by Iraq’s occupying force. Photographs of soldiers grinning mischievously into the camera sitting on Saddam’s throne, a gift from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, can be unearthed online.

From April 2003-December 2011, the palace evolved into an American-occupied playground housing war commanders and imported entertainers. It bore “few telltale signs that reminded me we were in Iraq,” veteran Wesley Gray wrote in his book “Embedded: A Marine Corps Adviser Inside the Iraqi Army,” resembling a shrunken settler colony. “A home-away-from-home” as described by Jim Loney, Reuters breaking news editor.

Six years since its creation, the complex was placed in receivership of the new Iraqi government but not without a grandiose send-off at the palace ballroom in June 2010. The symbolic reinvention of regime architecture has continued. The inauguration of Iraq’s third American University is merely an extension of what began in 2003.

Disjointed facts shared transcontinentally about those developments were first dismissed, mainly as Baghdad’s residents had not been informed. The story was verified in a tweet shared by former US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.

Khalilzad congratulated the local government, remembering when he helped open the American University of Kurdistan and dreamt of the day when that could be replicated in Baghdad.

Kurdish-run media outlet Rudaw provided the first mention of Khalilzad’s announcement. It confirmed the story, citing official approval from Baghdad. Its unnamed source mentioned, “facilities will first house a College of Law, College of Medicine, College of Arts and Sciences and College of Business.”

The foundations, as Rudaw mentioned, were laid during a meeting in March between US Ambassador Douglas Silliman and Iraqi Minister for Higher Education Abdul Razzaq Abdul Jaleel al-Essa.

A dozen students contacted by The Arab Weekly for comment appeared largely unaware of developments, which bemused some and saddened others.

“I never heard anything but a suggestion proposed last year to establish another medical school was met with a resounding ‘no’,” Baghdad medical college graduate Saif Ali said.

Another Baghdadi resident in his mid-20s shrugged off the news, unsure of whether AU Baghdad will be another unfulfilled promise. “We’ll see if tomorrow comes,” he said.

A job advertisement on Global Academy Jobs site confirmed what few in the capital have heard about.

One paragraph read: “Grass and trees will be planted. Wildlife will be returned [and] the lakes will be cleaned… it will be a quiet, contemplative place as a university should be.” “To locate a university at this site makes perfect sense,” it added. It is not entirely clear who wrote the poorly written advertisement.

Macro-level transformations such as these will help refashion the huge structure’s identity and, while new architectural identities can be forged, the memory of the past is harder to erase.

The palace is becoming an enduring symbol of US imperial designs in the region. The association with Saddam lives on, considering the combined failures of the United States and its Iraqi allies to build new structures. They are taking over those built to mirror the imagined eternity and invincibility once felt by the power they toppled. The palace remains trapped in a never-ending cycle of occupation and imperial policymaking.

The American University promises the highest quality of education while some of Baghdad’s oldest and most revered academic institutions are ignored and left to crumble.