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V Corps Release

Release Date: 1/1/2004

By Sgt. 1st Class Marcia Triggs Army News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq - While Iraq's former leader was hiding in holes, Sgt. Maj. Mikel Dawson was busy entertaining guests in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces and getting it ready to house Combined Joint Task Force-7.

The Alfaw palace near Baghdad International Airport has 60 rooms, 29 bathrooms and is the centerpiece of a 155-building compound, said Dawson, the Alfaw palace maintainer.

About 17 international and U.S. companies are involved in an ongoing joint venture to transform the palace into a world-class CJTF-7 headquarters, said V Corps' Sgt. Maj. Alex Branch, sergeant major for the logistics section of the CJTF-7 operations division.

A lot of money is being put into this project, but it's not just to upgrade one building, Branch said. Improvements will be made in the surrounding community to help maintain an operational headquarters, he added.

"The palace was chosen to be CJTF-7's headquarters because it's easy to defend with a small number of troops, it's in the center of Baghdad and it doesn't displace civilians, said Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Preston, the V Corps and CJTF-7 sergeant major.

The spacious palace is mostly unfurnished, because it was looted by the Iraqis during a one-week period between a time when the 3rd Infantry Division moved out and V Corps moved in, Preston said.

"Coalition forces took control of government and former regime property because we needed total control in the beginning of the war," Preston said. "Also, we had to protect the properties because looters were destroying them."

Alfaw is one of about 50 palaces located in Baghdad. Coalition forces or the Coalition Provisional Authority have command over all the palaces for now. Preston said the coalition is slowly shrinking its base operations to gradually hand over property and security to the Iraqis.

There are 30 major coalition operating bases now -- and that will shrink to four eventually, Preston said.

Sitting in the middle of the desert, Alfaw is surrounded by man-made lakes and palm trees. Dozens of chandeliers adorned with crystal-size plastic ornaments on gold-plated chains hang from the palace's high ceilings.

In fact gold seems to be the theme of the décor. All doorknobs and handles are gold plated, and gold etchings are found in every room, including the bathrooms.

"The enormity and gaudiness of the palace made me sick to my stomach," said Sgt. Darrow Orlandi, a V Corps fire direction specialist from Babenhausen, Germany.

The Iraqi children run on hot gravel and rocks with no shoes and socks, Orlandi said. They run to Soldiers asking for food and water because they are starving, he said. What Saddam did to the Iraqi people is a slap in the face to humanity, Orlandi added.

A film crew was recently in the palace to put together a documentary on how Saddam lived, Dawson said. It will air to show the Iraqis why they had to live the way they did, he added.

It is rumored that the palace belonged to one of the former dictator's sons, and was used as guest housing, Orlandi said. During its transformation it is still housing guests. Celebrities such as comedian Drew Carey, actor Robert De Niro and Vince McMahon, the owner and chairman of the World Wrestling Federation, have stayed at the Alfaw while entertaining troops in the area.

"People are in and out of the palace constantly," Dawson said. "In the beginning of the war it housed 450 Soldiers. We threw pool parties and built a makeshift barbeque pit."

The Soldiers were moved out of the palace because the hot water, electricity, heating and air-conditioning units are not operational throughout the compound, Dawson said. However, the headquarters is scheduled to be furnished and fully operational by Feb. 1, he added.

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