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Agence France Presse

Tikrit An Unlikely But Popular Holiday Destination For US Soldiers

by Rory Mulholland

13 January 2004
Copyright ©2004
Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

Saddam Hussein's hometown may not spring to mind as a holiday destination, but Tikrit offers palatial accommodation on the banks of the majestic Tigris river, live concerts, shopping and sports facilities and the chance to swim in a dictator's private pool.

"It's wonderful here," enthused Private Samuel Stevens as he returned to the 24-hour gym after a jog around the palace grounds. "We've got all the stuff that we have in the US."

For the moment, though, you have to be an American soldier or contractor to take advantage of the facilities of Ironhorse Resort, named after the US taskforce that is charged with imposing order in unruly north-central Iraq.

The resort is housed, like the US army's main military base in Tikrit, inside the huge palace compound of the ousted Iraqi president. Thousands of soldiers have come here since June for four-day stints of R and R, or rest and recreation.

Outside the palace walls the low-level insurgency against the US-led occupation continues, with deadly attacks a daily threat.

"It's Indian territory across the river," said Sergeant Major Mike Anastasio, who heads a 54-strong team catering for soldiers' recreational needs.

But inside the compound, both the US soldiers based here and those who come for R and R can avail themselves of a wealth of facilities that would be the envy of many a tour operator.

Activities such as basketball, tennis and fishing can be done at various locations around the compound, which stretches over several kilometres (miles) on either side of the Tigris.

The recreational epicentre, however, is the R and R building that sits on a cliff overlooking the water and the surrounding farmland, where Saddam was captured last month as he hid in a hole in the ground.

Sergeant Major Anasatasio lists the massage parlour, the movie theatre, the pool tables, the Internet cafe, the burger bar, the chaplain's office, a shop where you can get a tailored suit for 80 dollars, and what is known as the "bazaar" as among the delights on offer.

The bazaar is one of the few places on the base where you will see Iraqis. A handful come here every day to sell goods ranging from carpets to cigarettes, as well as items of which the US government might not approve, like Cuban cigars and pirated DVDs.

"We can't take these things back to the States," said Anastasio with a grin.

The building also houses a sports bar, which does not serve alcohol but which every week hosts themed nights that feature Latino bands, rhythm and blues concerts and open-mike sessions.

And in its basement it has a highly-ornate swimming pool, where a sign urges female soldiers to don swimwear that is "conservative, yet tasteful, not too revealing."

"That was Saddam's pool, he was the only guy who ever swam in it," said Anastasio. "The Iraqis tell me he only ever used it one day a year."

Not many people are using it now either in these cold winter months. The pool attendant said that the thrill of paddling in a tyrant's pool was attracting only a couple of people a day.

US soldiers in Iraq also have the option of short R and R stints in Qatar and in another location in northern Iraq.

Some of the soldiers here complain that there are not enough computers in the Internet cafe, others that the food is always the same.

But most of those AFP spoke to were happy with the facilities available to them when they take a short break from their mission to bring peace and democracy to Iraq.

"All they need here is alchohol," said Specialist Christian Concepcion, a 22-year-old from Puerto Rico, as he received a one-dollar haircut in the barber's shop.

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