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In historic Babylon, removing Saddam's mark, brick by brick

BABYLON, Iraq—Inside the ancient city of Babylon, they are taking the walls apart—brick by brick. Not looters, who have already trashed the restaurant, the tourist shop and the main entrance, but the museum's caretakers, who have a very different goal in mind.

Every day, Babylon's archeologist and director roam through the city's labyrinths removing the last vestige of Saddam Hussein: hundreds of bricks inscribed with his name.

"In the era of President Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, God preserve him," they read, "who rebuilt Babylon, as protector of the great Iraq and the builder of civilization."

Since thieves torched the city's small tourist shack, the bricks have become the hottest souvenir at Babylon, where they are snatched up by Marines for a buck a piece.

At the height of his power, Saddam imagined himself a spiritual descendant of the fabled rulers remembered for conquering Jerusalem, creating a legendary code of laws, and establishing an unparalleled global empire.

But now traces of Saddam's reign are literally crumbling.

"We vowed to remove his name when he left the throne," said Mohammed Taher, Babylon's museum director who now spends his days giving guided tours to Marines.

Even now, Saddam's imprint remains. During a recent tour, Taher twice referred to the city being rebuilt "by the grace of Saddam," rote praise that has long flowed off the tongues of his people and will be harder to remove than the bricks.

In his heyday, Saddam sought to recreate Babylon in his image. Soon after he officially took power in 1979, Saddam ordered the rebuilding of the city's walls and, like Nebuchadnezzar who ruled Babylon in sixth century B.C., he directed his builders to place his name on hundreds of bricks in the fortress.

He rebuilt the city's amphitheatre, where he held the Babylon Festival every fall to celebrate the nation's cultural richness.

While the city was among the nation's historic sites looted after Baghdad fell last month, most of its treasured relics had long ago been hauled off by other invaders. Babylon's famed Ishtar Gate is on display in Berlin. Hammurabi's tablets containing the city's code of law are in a Paris museum.

The Tower of Babel is little more than an indiscernible ruin and there is no trace of the Hanging Gardens, once heralded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Overlooking the ruins, looming over the region from a man-made hill rising above a tributary of the Euphrates River, Saddam also built a southern palace. It is now the living quarters for scores of homesick Marines.

Looters got there first and stripped the palace of everything from chairs and doors to electrical wire and light bulbs. Now Marines have thrown down their bedrolls in its cavernous bedrooms with ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the water. "I've lived in holes I dug myself and now I'm living in a palace," said Lance Corporal Michael Anthony.

For some residents of the nearby town, the palace is full of ghosts.

While few residents were allowed near the palace, they still have stories to tell.

Abed Jaleel, said Saddam's oldest son, Uday, would roam the country's colleges on horseback, picking out women and bringing them to the Babylon palace. There, Jaleel said, Uday would host days of debauchery before killing the women and tossing their bodies in the nearby river.

Over the years, Jaleel said he had pulled 17 bodies from the river and buried them in the sand.

"Who would do this?" he asked. "You can't understand what it was like."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ+BABYLON