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 Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 03:26 GMT 04:26 UK
Iraq's presidential 'palaces'
Iraqi presidential palace
Journalists have been given a glimpse of the sites
Access to Iraq's presidential sites - sometimes referred to as "palaces" - is seen as crucial to any effective United Nations inspection for weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraqi authorities were often ready to break down doors, including steel doors, in order to provide access

UN report on 1998 presidential site survey
The US Government reports that new facilities are being built in Iraq all the time, but the UN has singled out eight particular sites it wants to inspect.

Three of the sites are in Baghdad - Radwaniyah, the Republican Palace and Sijood - while the others are located around Iraq at Tikrit, Mosul, Jabal Makhul, Lake Tharthar and Al Basra.

The sites already covered 32 square kilometres (12 square miles) and comprised hundreds of buildings in 1998 when a UN Special Group of diplomats and weapons experts were allowed to tour them briefly.

The team which visited between 24 March and 4 April 1998 to conduct a "baseline survey" reported that the Iraqis had been generally co-operative.

In its report to the UN Security Council, the Special Group said Iraqi officials had been helpful to the extent of even breaking down doors where keys had been lost.

But, they added, the Iraqis had had a month's notice to arrange the tour and there was evidence of "extensive evacuation" at all of the sites.

Another criticism of the Iraqis was the restrictions they initially imposed on aerial photography and helicopter flights over the sites.

New statue of Saddam in Baghdad
Monuments to Saddam are going up all the time
The Special Group pointed out that its task had been merely to survey the sites and not to check for prohibited materials.

A spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, Melissa Fleming, has stressed the need to examine the sites thoroughly:

"As weapons inspectors, we need to see what is below the roofs of those buildings that we see from the sky.

"What is going on in those buildings? We need to talk to the people. We need to see the documents in order to really find out the truth."

Saddam's secrets

According to the US State Department, such is the secrecy surrounding Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's palaces, that he had one of the architects executed for merely giving details of the luxury to be found there.

Open in new window : Iraq spotlight
Click to see maps of Iraq's suspected weapons sites

Western journalists were allowed a glimpse of the Baghdad sites in December 1997 when the government announced an unscheduled visit.

"We would like you to see these palaces about which a lot of mysteries have been fabricated so that you can see for yourselves that these are normal presidential sites," Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said at the time.

At Radwaniyah, the journalists found Italian marble and huge artificial lakes filled with wild birds. At other sites, they found similar luxury, dominated everywhere by sculpted images of Saddam.

Huge sites

That Saddam's sites are no ordinary palaces is borne out by the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction published by the British Government.

That report featured an aerial photograph of one of the sprawling sites and pointed out that London's Buckingham Palace would fit into a tiny area of it.

Even if UN inspectors are given full access to the eight Iraqi sites, it appears unlikely that their investigations will stop there.

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