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Saddam’s Lagoon

This base is infinitely bigger than I first thought. I still haven’t figured out its total extent.

Yesterday I rode aboard one of the trucks that delivers fresh drinking water to various locations. In order to get through the security controls early enough, that means leaving the camp at 05:30. It’s dark and chilly.

The dawn is much cooler now than it was a week ago. For the first time, I see a light cover of clouds. Some people look up and scowl. They fear the coming of the rains, when everything will turn to thick sloughs of mud. Here it seems the ground is some form of clay. It certainly isn’t earth or sand – the dust is too fine. I hate mud.

The circuit the water truck takes goes by way of a large, artificial lake, built by the famous former leader. The lake is fed by a canal system coming from the Tigris, and itself feeds many canals and inlets throughout the airport complex.

Whether by design or neglect I do not know, but many of these waterways are fringed by tall reeds and bullrushes. Images of Moses in the Nile. Strangely enough, there is a similar story from nearby here. The birth legend of Sargon, first king of Akkadia, also has him set in a basket of reeds, set afloat and recovered from the water – but by a water carrier, not a princess.

Enough trees and palms have been left to create refuges of shadow, of which the soldiers have taken advantage to build small wooden pergolas that overlook the flowing water. One or two look almost like my own pergola at home. What lovely, tranquil places to spend the last moments of a day.

I’m told that there are fish in the lagoon – and sure enough in one corner or another I see some of the off-duty drivers casting with small rods or just hook-and-line. In one shallow canal I catch a glimpse of some trout-sized fish with vermillion tails.

A low-arched bridge spans one broader canal. In the reflected sunlight the water, the shadows and the river plants whose leaves brush the surface look almost as peaceful and gentle as a painting by Monet.

The hard lurch of the water truck as it turns right jostles me out of my memory.

On the way, we pass by the “coastline” of the larger lagoon. The concept is impressive, and I think may find its origins in some of the pleasure gardens of Persia, India or China.

Essentially, a number of small and not-so-small villas have been built, in the same style but at irregular intervals, along the shores of the lagoon. The irregular shape of the shoreline helps give each one an individual feel. With the road we are travelling on behind them, those on the left hand side are built down towards the water, often with a colonnaded terrace extending out far into the lagoon, and so low as to be almost at water’s level.

I can’t describe the architectural style – it’s a pastiche of old and new of course, but not inelegant. All are angles and niches, with large stone-framed windows. The façades are thick tiles of tawny sandstone, with decorative work carved in a rugged manner. War damage has blasted a couple of turrets so I can see the underlying structure is cement, but in pristine condition you could be fooled into thinking they were built of stone.

Now each villa is occupied by a regimental or divisional command. The windows are sandbagged and cemented so high almost no light can brighten the rooms. The doorways are flanked by ubiquitous T-bars. Ornamental hanging lamps are wrapped in fine netting to protect anyone from the glass should they break. Containers with generators are dumped on the terraces or on the open ground behind them. More T-bars and HESCOs huddle around them. Telecoms wires become garlands casually draped between the lamps of an entrance way. A camouflage net, hung over a small plaza between villas, shades some resting soldiers. Others lounge at rough wooden shelters, waiting for the bus to come by.

Oblivous to the rough tramp of history. the canal breaks into a small waterfall as its water crashes into the lagoon. Over on the other side, squats one Saddam’s great palaces, glowering at the villas from a distance, and to which all are turned, like the courtiers they surely once housed.

Who sits in that palace now?

The Lagoon as seen by Google Earth

Note: I don’t yet have a badge to enter this area without escort, so I can’t take any fotos. I suspect even when I do have a badge I probably won’t be allowed to take any either.