London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Some mistakenly call Iraq’s Republican Palace in Baghdad, “Saddam’s Palace”, sometimes even adding the historical landmark to the numerous palaces that once belonged to the late Iraqi dictator, which have now been transformed into either headquarters of US forces, or accommodation for new Iraqi officials.
The Republican Palace is located in the Kharadah Mariam district of Baghdad, a wealthy district in the Western half of the Iraqi capital which is split by the Tigris River. The palace was built for King Faisal II to reside in following his marriage [to Egyptian Princess Sabiha Fazila Khanim Sultan]. However before the wedding could take place the King, along with his family was assassinated on 14 July 1958 at Rehab Palace in a coup d’état undertaken by a group of army officered led by Abd Al-Karim Qasim.
With the establishment of the first republic [in Iraq] headed by Qasim, the palaces name was changed to the “Republican Palace.” This palace was the third royal palace to house the Iraqi monarchy, after the Zuhur Palace and the Rehab Palace.
Zuhur Palace is located in the “Um Al Azzam” district of Baghdad and was the residence of King Ghazi, the second King of Iraq and father of Faisal II. King Ghazi died in a car accident on the road leading from his palace to the main road; some believe that this accident was arranged by the British due to the King’s tendency towards nationalistic ideology and his admiration of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. After this the royal family left Zuhur Palace, moving to the Rehab Place in the Harithia quarter which is not far from the first palace.
Some consider it an overstatement calling the Rehab Palace a palace at all, since it size is no bigger then that of a normal Baghdad house. This same description applies to the Zuhur Palace which became one of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces at the end of the 90s.
The Iraqi royal family did not truly have royal palaces in the true sense of the word rather any dwelling they resided in was given the name of “palace.” When King Faisal I came from Hejaz to Baghdad in 1921 [to accept the crown of the British Mandate of Iraq] the people of Baghdad were unsure as to what do about the issue of their new King’s residence. The British forces rebuilt an old Abbasid palace that had been used by the Ottoman’s first as a vocational school, and then as a military camp.
This Abbasid palace was located in Baghdad near the North Gate on the Eastern Bank of the Tigris River near, adjacent to another Abbasid palace overlooking the Tigris that is still there today. King Faisal I made the decision that this palace would be his residence, and his family residence.
Since the beginning of the [Iraqi] monarchy there has been much consideration as to building a large royal palace to serve as residence and headquarters for the King; this was the palace that was built by Faisal II [the Republican Palace].
It must be noted that the first President of the Iraqi Republic, Abd Al-Karim Qasim never resided in the palace, it is even said that he never saw or visited the place, rather Qasim continued to rule from his office in the Ministry of Defense.
Abdul Salam Arif, the second President of Iraq, was the first to reside in the Republican Palace, and he used it as his official headquarters. He even used one of the royal cars, a black Rolls Royce, removing the royal crest and outfitting it with the presidential seal.
Abdul Rahman Arif inherited the Iraqi presidency after the death of his brother Abdul Salam in a helicopter accident in 1966, along with the Republican Palace, and so was the second Iraqi president to rule the country from there. On the 17th of June 1968 the Republican Palace guards cooperated with the Baath party in staging a coup against the President. The head of military intelligence, along with leader of the Republican Guard, were granted access into the Republican Palace, where they overthrew Arif in a [bloodless] coup, and thus the Baath party came to power [in Iraq].
The fourth President of Iraq, Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr, also used the Republican Palace as his headquarters, while his deputy at the time Saddam Hussein resided in the National Council building, which was intended to be the Iraqi parliament’s headquarters. This building sits directly on the Tigris River in the western half of Baghdad, and is not far from the Republican Palace.
It is striking that Saddam Hussein never resided in the Republican Palace; rather he chose to reside in the Radwaniyah Palace close to Baghdad International Airport. This palace has been transformed today into a US forces headquarters, as well as an office for the National Council, although the Council continues to receive its high-profile guests at the Republican Palace.
American forces bombed the Republican Palace more than once during Operation Desert Shield in 1991; they also bombed it prior to their entry into Baghdad in 2003.
The turquoise dome of the Republican Palace is an architectural wonder that characterizes this palace which has witnessed important historical events, even though its original owner never resided there. Perhaps the bitterest of these events for the Iraqi people to swallow was the transformation of the palace into a US embassy headquarters. The Republican Palace was returned to the Iraqi Presidency by the US on 1 January 2009.