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Journalists given tour of huge Iraqi palaces

Richardson accuses Iraqis of 'PR games'

December 19, 1997
Web posted at: 2:52 p.m. EST (1952 GMT)
Aziz
Aziz leads a tour
 

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Affable Iraqi officials, led by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, gave Western journalists guided tours Friday of six presidential palaces -- with landscaped lawns larger than 10 soccer fields -- that have been off-limits to U.N. weapons inspectors.

Aziz, described as cordial, said the Iraqis wanted the journalists to see the places "where many mysteries have been fabricated about them, so that you can see yourself that these are normal presidential sites."

But after receiving news about the guided tours, Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused Iraq of "resorting to PR (public relations) games."

Peter Arnett reports from Baghdad
icon 3 min. VXtreme streaming video



CNN interview with Bill Richardson
icon 6 min., 40 sec. VXtreme streaming video

"It's pure propaganda. They're playging games. Those are programmed tours," Richardson said. "If they have nothing to fear, why don't they let the U.N. inspectors into those presidential sites?"

The arms monitors, under the auspices of the United Nations, have demanded access, saying they suspect that Iraq may be hiding information on its banned weapons programs in the palaces. The United States has strongly backed the U.N. demand.

U.N. Security Council diplomats have said they will not consider lifting the crushing economic embargo they imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait until Iraq fully cooperates with the arms inspectors.

Aziz jokes with reporters

At a guest house, Aziz told a young American reporter, "You can honeymoon here if you like."

The Iraqis handed out fried chicken lunches to the journalists. President Saddam Hussein's private secretary, a general, told CNN's Peter Arnett, "Don't hesitate to eat. It won't kill you. I can assure you there is nothing that will contaminate you here."

Among the six palaces were five in the presidential complex on the western bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad, which are off-limits to civilians.

In that complex, four huge bronze busts of President Saddam Hussein sit atop the stone palaces where massive lawns are planted with trees and flowers. One building has a huge domed hall tiled with Italian marble. Another has bronze statues of soldiers and paintings of Saddam leading his army into victory.

There were two palaces under construction in the sprawling compound, which was so large that journalists had to take buses from one site to the next.

The presidential complex in Radhwaniya, outside Baghdad, was also opened to reporters. It features huge artificial lakes filled with wild ducks and birds. In one of the palaces there, builders had made the image of a falcon in Italian marble.

palace
A palace interior
 

Aziz said the main palace in Baghdad, which was built in the 1950s, was bombed during the 1991 Gulf War. A wall painting shows Saddam giving a helping hand to the builders who not only reconstructed it but added two massive new wings.

The palaces in Baghdad had no furniture, and the offices were not staffed. A few armed sentries stood guard at the main entrances.

At the height of the crisis last month over arms inspections, Saddam opened the doors of his palaces to civilians, who acted as human shields to protect the palaces from possible attacks.

Richardson: 'They aren't fooling anybody'

"It's now the media," Richardson said. "They have also invited diplomats from the Security Council."

"Why not (include) qualified U.N. inspectors, scientists, professionals from a number of nations? These PR efforts aren't going to work and they aren't fooling anybody."

Richardson said the Iraqi decision not to allow weapons inspectors inside the palaces "shows Iraq is not ready to comply" with U.N. sanctions requiring that its weapons of mass destruction be destroyed.

There is "credible evidence of weapons of mass destruction at those sites," he said.

Butler reports limited progress on access

Richard Butler, the head of the U.N. inspection program, reported Thursday to the Security Council on his meeting with Iraqi officials about access to suspected weapons sites.

Afterward, he told reporters there had been progress in some areas, but that Iraq still refused to offer access to presidential sites. The Iraqis have said that inspectors can have greater access to Iraqi Republican Guard sites.

However, Aziz said inspectors would never be given access to the presidential sites. Iraq has stated that its stance on those sites is a "matter of principle." According to Iraqi Ambassador to the U.N. Nizar Hamdoon, "It's not logical those sites would contain prohibited items."

President Clinton has said there are more than 70 presidential sites. Iraq says the number is exaggerated, but officials there have not provided their own figures.

 

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