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Presidential palaces pose riddle

An UNMOVIC vehicle stands outside the Al Sajud palace amid inspections.
An UNMOVIC vehicle stands outside the Al Sajud palace amid inspections.

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CNN's Nic Robertson has the latest on U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq (December 2)
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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models
Deadlines for steps Iraq must take to be in full compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441:
December 8: Iraq must provide a "currently accurate, full and complete declaration" of any weapons of mass destruction program.
On or before January 27: Inspectors must report back to the Security Council.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- There are more presidential palaces in Iraq than in most other countries -- and most were built after the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

U.N. documents list eight main Saddam Hussein palace compounds containing more than 1,000 buildings -- luxury mansions, smaller guest villas, office complexes, warehouses and garages -- and covering some 32 square kilometres (12 square miles) in total.

A report by the former U.N. arms inspection body, UNSCOM, in 1998 listed them as Radwaniyah, Baghdad Republican Palace and Al Sujud -- all in Baghdad -- Tikrit, Mosrul, Jabal Makhul, Tharthar and Basrah.

CNN's Nic Robertson says that it is difficult to know what use President Saddam Hussein makes of the dozens of palaces across the country.

"U.N. weapons inspectors said the web of deception they found in Iraq in 1998 stemmed from the palaces," Robertson says.

Inspections at presidential palaces were a flashpoint between the United Nations and Iraq following the end of the Gulf War through 1998.

In 1997 Iraq told the U.N. it was designating some sites as "presidential" or "sovereign" and inspectors would henceforth be banned.

A year later a special group of U.N. inspectors was allowed to conduct a "baseline survey" but they reported numerous difficulties of access to buildings protected by steel doors and locks.

Eventually in December 1998 chief UNSCOM inspector Richard Butler pulled out all the U.N. inspectors saying that their work was being obstructed.

The British government is in no doubt about the palaces.

In its recent dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the Blair government declared: "Many of the so-called 'palaces' are in fact large compounds which are an integral part of Iraqi counter-measures to hide weapons material."

The Al Sujud compound in central Baghdad, which U.N. inspectors visited on Tuesday, is not the largest of Iraq's presidential palaces, although it is bigger than Britain's Buckingham Palace.

The palace, which includes formerly public areas that are now out of bounds to ordinary Iraqis, houses offices and accommodation for servants and officials.

Journalists were allowed a peek inside the grandiose palace grounds on Tuesday after the U.N. experts and Iraqi officials left.

They were taken through a palm-lined driveway surrounded by rose gardens. Statues stood at the entrance and throughout a domed inner courtyard.

Inside the palace were marble fountains and gold-coloured elevator doors. A plaster model of the compound showed damage from Western bombardment during the 1990s.

Robertson says it is possible that the inspectors could find Saddam at one of the palaces as they make their visits -- and other searches -- unannounced.

But he is said to shuttle between them to protect against assassination attempts.

Saddam has not been seen in 13 days. Although he is known to keep a low profile, it is possible that he does not want to give the inspections publicity, Robertson says..

-- CNN Correspondent Nic Robertson contributed to this report.

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