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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 8 April, 2003, 13:10 GMT 14:10 UK
In the palace with the marines

By Clive Myrie
With the Royal Marines in Basra

British troops in Iraq's second city Basra have taken control of a lavish presidential palace built by Saddam Hussein.

We spent the night here, sleeping on the marble floor of one of the buildings that has been given over to journalists.

Royal Marines from 42 Commando are staying in the main presidential building on the complex.

Royal Marine
The Royal Marines took over the empty place
It is the best place I have slept in for the last three weeks - and a bit of a change from mudbanks and holes cut in the desert.

So it was a fairly pleasant night - but also rather eerie, knowing that this place actually belonged to one of the most notorious men in recent middle eastern history.

The whole palace is incredibly ornate and plush - probably what you would expect from a man who has squandered and used for his own ends billions of dollars of oil money over the last 30-odd years of rule.

This morning I am outside one of the buildings in the palace grounds.

There are eight or nine huge, grandiose buildings and a mosque right in the middle.

It is a very impressive sight - gold pretty much everywhere, particularly in the luxurious bathrooms.

Absent landlord

There are marble pillars in many of the rooms and at the entrance ways to a lot of the buildings.

The views are magnificent of the Shat al-Arab waterway which runs down the side of the palace.

I think there is a feeling that local people need to let off a bit of steam after what is effectively the end of Saddam Hussein's regime in southern Iraq
The main presidential building faces west so sunsets are seen at their optimum value at the end of the day.

A great deal of money was obviously lavished on this place, but we understand from speaking to local people that Saddam Hussein did not spend much time here.

He only visited a couple of times since this place was built, back in the early 1990s.

There is hardly any evidence that anyone has lived in the palace for quite a long time. The place had been locked up and guarded.

We understand that most of the furnishings and fittings were taken out of the building about six months ago, as the storm clouds were beginning to gather over Iraq.

Royal Marines
Marble floors and ornate carvings adorn the palace
But just before UK forces took over the palace a couple of days ago local people looted what was left.

There is dust all over the place and many smashed windows and wrecked bathroom fittings.

Of course, presidential palaces were very much at the top of the list of places that the UN weapons inspectors wanted to look at in case they were being used to house weapons of mass destruction.

We understand that after a sweep of this particular presidential site, nothing was found.

In the city itself, UK troops have very much got things under control.

We drove round the centre of town yesterday - well-wishers were coming up saying "Hello, greetings, Salaam".

And I think the troops have been getting a good reception as well.

Fresh water

There was a lot of looting on Monday - and the British have made it clear that they are not going to intervene.

I think there is a feeling that local people need to let off a bit of steam after what is effectively the end of Saddam Hussein's regime in southern Iraq.

The British commanders may decide to be a little more proactive in securing the city today and perhaps laying the foundations for the distribution of humanitarian aid - particularly fresh water.

There are food shortages but it is not chronic - no one is starving in the centre of town.

Water is the big problem.

All the water that we are having to get - for the journalists, for the troops - is bottled water that we are bringing in from outside.

So supplying fresh water for the people of Basra is something that has got to be addressed and, of course, medicines for the hospitals.

These are the key areas that UK troops will be targeting as far as the humanitarian effort is concerned.

But today, the marines are going out on patrol once more - their priority to consolidate their hold on the city.




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