Last word Alice Fordham checks in with the staff at Iraq's most intriguing boarding house.
Alice Fordham checks in with the staff at Iraq's most intriguing boarding house. Captain Rogers, an American cavalry officer in Baghdad, has a problem to address. One of his men has stopped folding napkins into ruffled cones and is inquiring whether he should seat four people on each side of the table, with one setting at the head for an unconfirmed ninth guest. Rogers considers. "Set it for 10," he decides - four on each side and one at each end. "It will give a nice, balanced presentation." That settled, Rogers turns away from the glass-topped table and gold chairs, strides across the marble floor, and takes a seat in the armchair in which Saddam Hussein gave his last interview, in February 2003.
This is the US Army's Joint Visitors' Bureau. Once the guesthouse of the Al Faw palace complex on the outskirts of Baghdad - used by Saddam and his family as a retreat - today it plays host to defence officials, US congressional delegations, Hollywood stars come to cheer up the troops, and the occasional embedded journalist. A vaulted vision of glitzy light fixtures and plush furniture, it is run by dozens of American soldiers who walk the corridors in combat uniforms and sand-coloured boots, their images reflected in vast mirrors, chatting about ping-pong matches and whose turn it is to drive the convoy tomorrow. The foyer is lit by a crystal globe surrounded by blue glass rings, beneath which soldiers slump on pink and gold sofas, do the crossword, and watch sport. An arched, stained glass window casts light onto a pile of flak jackets and helmets.
One small room, its ceiling covered with intricate geometric designs and dotted with chandeliers, has been converted into a dining facility, where the troops eat mass-produced meatloaf off plastic plates, glancing up at the baseball on TV. They work out in an improvised gym set up outside, between the scrolled and fluted columns on the deck, which looks out onto a man-made lake of water diverted from the Tigris. Fishing rods are available, as are golf clubs. A retired marine, now a contractor here on business, wallops balls into the water. A taped-up sign warns: "Don't hit your golf balls at the Al Faw palace."
A young cook from Oregon explains that when he deployed, he anticipated being a gunner in a Humvee. To wake up every morning and plan menus for dignitaries is, he says, "a blessing". Occasionally, some hard-bitten men who joined the military to see "some action" express the view that hotel management isn't what they signed up for. But most agree that meeting Angelina Jolie is in many ways better than sweltering tents and mortal danger.
Rogers shows me a vase given by Saddam to one of his aides with covert details of a tryst between the ruler and one of his mistresses written on its base. He is hopeful that the palace complex will be preserved for history. In America, he says, you can visit George Washington's old house, with everything mocked up as if the great man still lived there. One day they should do that with this place. If they ever do, however, a few details might have to be fudged: a single locked bookcase is all that remains of Saddam's library; a story still circulates that a first edition of Huckleberry Finn was found among the dictator's books, then filched by an unknown soldier.
I ask the Marine-turned-contractor what Saddam might think if he could see his old playground now. "I like to think futuristically," he said - not about the past. Distancing one's daily work from the bigger Iraqi picture is, in my experience, a fact of military life here. The comedian Stephen Colbert played a series of shows this year in the vast foyer of the Al Faw palace. A young lieutenant joined him to sing The Star Spangled Banner to a rapt audience. Afterwards, when I asked her what Saddam might have thought, she just twinkled: "He might have thought: great acoustics!"
In many ways, soldiers' lives here are the same as those of their brothers- and sisters-in-arms on the big, dusty, purpose-built bases that now dot Iraq. Meals and assignments are timetabled and regimented, even if those assignments include mopping marble floors and carrying celebrities' luggage. Most things that are not compulsory are forbidden. The focus is on the job to be done and the months until the end of the mission. There are America flags everywhere. Baskin Robbins ice cream is served. Visiting generals get apple pie for dessert. Soldiers frequently refer to "here" as if they were still in America ? as in, "It'll be a long time before soccer gets more popular than real football over here." On a recent Sunday afternoon, an acoustic guitar duo flown in from America to entertain the troops played on the deck, and their performance was broadcast by radio across the base. A crowd of soldiers gathered around, the duo took requests, and country classics drifted across the water.
Already, minds here are on the next likely backdrop: Afghanistan. In Iraq, violent deaths have fallen since American troops withdrew from the cities a month ago. There is time to spend making a hotel pleasant for visitors, and it rather feels like the end of the war. In Afghanistan, coalition troops are losing an escalating battle, and there will be enough action for the most energetic soldier. The cook from Oregon explains that, in addition to his chef's certificate, he has a house clearance qualification ("it's kicking in doors"). Does he think he'll be cooking in Afghanistan? A derisory snort. "No, ma'am," he says, eyeing a stack of plates with Saddam's crest. "This posting, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Alice Fordham is a freelance journalist who writes about current affairs and culture from all over the Middle East.