BAGHDADKicking back in a rococo chair, his feet propped on an ornate table and flanked by two stone goats, Lt. Richard Wilkerson knows he can't complain too much. He had spent a nearly a month at war, survived the most intense firefight he is ever likely to see, and was now lounging amid the ruins of one of Saddam Hussein's opulent palaces built along the brown waters of the Tigris River. And yet, there was still one thing the 27-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., native was lacking. "I was looking for some whiskey and couldn't find any."
It is the final indignity for Saddam Hussein's once mighty regime: The American invaders he decried as "godless infidels" are now decamped on his front lawn scrounging for booze. The garish palaces that Saddam once shuttled between to elude his enemies are now the military headquarters of Army and Marine units patrolling the unruly streets of the capital city. At Azumiyah Palace, where the1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment has established its headquarters, battle-weary soldiers sleep under the shade of palm fronds, hang their laundry on marble grand staircases, and take baths in man-made ponds fed by the ancient river.
Inside the palace, some marines play poker underneath beams of light streaming from mammoth holes in the ceiling. Others sift through mail sent long ago and just now reaching the front. Those without the energy for even life's mundane rituals sprawl out across tacky red couches, abandoning themselves to weeks of lost sleep. In a formal dining room, civilian intelligence operatives from what people here refer to as "other government agencies" have spread large maps across a massive wood table to plot future engagements against the remaining pockets of resistance in Baghdad.
The shattered chandeliers and broken grandfather clocks are the only remaining evidence of the luxuries that Baath Party luminaries once enjoyed at Azumiyah. The new tenants of the palace believe most of the palace's treasures had been removed from the compound before the war began. What's left, in the words of Lt. Cesar Melgoza, is "just a bunch of cheap Vegas furniture." That, and a few iron busts of Saddam adorning every building on the palace grounds.
When the Marines approached the Azumiyah in the predawn hours of April 10, there were none of Saddam's acolytes to be foundonly 400 Syrian gunmen who had come to Iraq with the single purpose of killing American soldiers. What followed was the most relentless gun battle that 1st Battalion encountered during the entire war, with marines in tanks and armored vehicles clashing with the Syrians in every corner of the sprawling compound. "It was the most intense fight I've ever seen," recalls Lt. Col. Fred Padilla, 1st Battalion's commanding officer and a veteran of grisly urban battles in Somalia.
During an eight-hour firefight, the marines withstood the withering fire of nearly 1,000 RPGs shot from windows, bunkers, and from sniper positions on the roofs of the buildings. They returned fire by sending tank rounds through the walls of the palace, and dispatched their own snipers armed with MK-19 machine guns to cut down the Syrian gunmen. With the battle still raging as the sun came up, Padilla received intelligence that some 70 enemy fighters were massing at a nearby cemetery for a counterattack. He ordered an air strike on the cemetery, killing those who tried to reinforce the heavily outgunned fighters defending the palace.
The smoke has long since cleared, and birds have returned to their perches in the trees along Azumaiyah's shaded paths. And, the palace that was once forbidden to ordinary Iraqis is now visited by those curious citizens savvy enough to talk their way past the Marine sentries. Zina, a Kurdish student at Baghdad University, picks branches off the landscaped bushes to bring to her father: She needs proof that she actually walked the grounds of Azumiyah Palace. Later, she sits in a high-backed chair in a room with a panoramic view of the Tigris, a breeze blowing through window frames that no longer contain glass. "I feel like the princess of the palace," she says in broken English.
For the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment, the war is likely over. They will remain at the palace only briefly and then deploy elsewhere in Iraq to help return stability to the war-ravaged country. For the time being, though, they are enjoying their moment in one of Saddam's former playgrounds. Walking up to an empty swimming pool in the palace's sprawling backyard, Padilla, the new landlord of Azumiyah Palace, has a tinge of regret. "I was disappointed to see it wasn't full."