- Associated Press - Friday, December 2, 2011

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq (AP) — Inside palace walls built by Saddam Hussein, U.S. generals plotted the war’s course, tracked the mounting death toll and swore in new American citizens under gaudy glass chandeliers.

Just outside the palace, American troops whacked golf balls into man-made lakes or fished for carp, while others sat down with a cigar and a can of nonalcoholic beer hoping for a respite from incoming rockets or mortar shells.

Along another lake some distance away, a jailed Saddam tended to tomatoes and cucumbers in a small, walled-off enclosure with guards patrolling overhead.

Ever since the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division fought their way into the Baghdad airport grounds nearly nine years ago, the sprawling area they renamed Camp Victory has held a special place in the American military experience in Iraq.

From here, the highest-ranking generals sitting behind banks of telephones and video screens communicated with commanders in the field and political leaders in Washington, and dictated strategy that unfolded on the streets of Fallujah, Mosul and Najaf.

It was an intersection in the war where U.S. troops, hot and dusty after traveling across Iraq’s deadly roads and highways, could relax with a latte or bootlegged movie before heading back out again.

On Friday, the base that at its height was home to 46,000 people was handed over to the Iraqi government as part of American efforts to move all U.S. troops out of the country by the end of the year.

“The base is no longer under U.S. control and is under the full authority of the government of Iraq,” said U.S. military spokesman Col. Barry Johnson. He said that by 2 p.m. on Friday, there was no longer any U.S. troop presence at the base.

The transfer of the country’s largest American military base to Iraqi custody happened with little fanfare, and no ceremony was held.

The area, which the military formally calls Victory Base Complex, was originally used as a country club for the Baghdad elite under Saddam. A visitor can still find small relics of that era, such as signs advising patrons where to park, or the hours during which the casino was open.

Saddam built the palace complex near the airport out of embarrassment. During the 1978 Arab League summit he was forced to house incoming dignitaries in private homes in Baghdad because he had no proper accommodations, according to Robert O. Kirkland, a former U.S. military historian who interviewed former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and other Iraqis who were once in American custody.

To rectify the problem, Saddam went on a palace-building spree, eventually building nine structures of varying size and impressiveness. He gave some of them names that reflected his often convoluted view of the world: Victory over America, Victory over Iran and Victory over Kuwait.

In the run-up to the war, U.S. military planners were confused by a cone-shaped structure they could see from satellite imagery, said Col. Les Melnyk, another former U.S. military historian in Iraq. They labeled it a possible prayer site. It turned out to be a pigeon coop.

Maj. William Sumner was a captain when his unit arrived at Camp Victory in mid-April 2003. He remembers how Iraqi looters managed to get into the complex and make off with geese, pelicans and other animals from a small zoo Saddam had built.

“I think that’s when the cougar got out of the enclosure,” he said. For weeks afterward, a large feline, which Sumner said could have also been a bobcat, was spotted wandering around the base.

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