Baghdad: The Palestine Hotel

Shortly after the US Marines entered Baghdad, Luke Hunt filed the following dispatch for Agence France-Press.

BAGHDAD, April 17 (AFP) – In one corner combatants of the self-styled Free Iraq Forces hold court, a Muslim cleric and his entourage sweep past marines in full battle dress while a middle-aged man hustles whisky out of a plastic bag.

A marine yells: “Clear a path”, as General James Mattis tries to leave. But the order is ignored by the hundreds who fill the hotel’s lobby and bodyguards deploy the butts of their M-16 assault rifles to force an exit.

Cameras flash and journalists shove microphones under the noses of military officers in the hope of an elusive quote. Marines remain unsure whether Central Command Chief General Tommy Franks will pop in for a visit.

A mix of cigarette smoke and the aroma of Turkish coffee fill the air.

It’s rush hour at the Palestine Hotel where the aftermath of war in Iraq has delivered a circus of characters, capable of testing the imagination of any Hollywood script writer.

The Palestine is not quite the Ritz in Paris after World War II but it has generated an atmosphere similar to that of the Al-Rashid Hotel of the 1990-91 Gulf War or even Saigon’s Vietnam War-era Continental Hotel

Each person has an interest to push. One Iraqi, Mohammed Mohsen Zubeidi, has declared himself the “governor of Iraq” while “General” Jaudat Obeidi says he is now the “mayor of Baghdad.”

Both are trying to ingratiate themselves with the US military but neither has their approval, and armed with an assortment of bodyguards, advisors and tribal chiefs relentlessly push their claims through the Palestine’s halls.

“My boss is the new head of government … he runs Baghdad,” boasts Sadd Kadowm. “We decided to elect him mayor of Baghdad.”

Zubeidi is apparantly from the Zubeidi tribe. Its chief Hasan Hatoti calls his own press conference as frantic staff struggle to avoid the skirt of his traditional jelaba while hauling hotel luggage.

“Zubeidi is a good man and should be the next president of Iraq,” he bellows as a dozen men watch on and entertain the notion that their man will replace Saddam Hussein as head of state.

Zubeidi is also selective, having demanded an interview with CNN and refusing to speak to anyone else until their crew arrives.

As the hucksters bare their chutzpah, others are struggling to cope.

Just 20 out of the 450 people normally employed by the hotel have returned to work since the Americans seized control of the capital last week. Food is limited and elevators often fail amid promises that Baghdad’s electricity grid will soon be repaired.

Outside, marines have pitched tents on hotel lawns, children work the street markets offering Iraqi dinars for US greenbacks, while adults tout trinkets and business is brisk.

Watches baring an imprint of Saddam Hussein’s face fetch up to 50 dollars, badges of the ousted Iraqi leader are worth between two and three dollars while key rings sell for five dollars.

It’s about the only business in town, with looted shops closed and most residents of Baghdad out of work and staying home in the absence of a civil administration.

But peddling anything of slight interest to the Americans has emerged as something of a pastime, and one way to bust through the marines and the razor wire that separates locals from the centre of power in Iraq.

“Everyone and his brother has a story to tell about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein, his son Uday and (former Iraqi deputy prime minister) Tareq Aziz. They all just want to find a way inside the hotel,” said Lieutenant Colonel Will Constantini.

He lamented such false leads, half truths and outright lies.

“These days we’re drilling into a lot of dry wells.”


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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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