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Basra Museum: How Saddam's palace was given to the people

Inside the palace, now a museum

The former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, built more than 70 luxurious palaces during his 24-year rule. Now one in Basra is being used to showcase the region's historical treasures.

Hundreds poured through the huge iron doors protecting the antiquities this week to gaze at the remnants of their rich past. The project - a brainchild of the British Army and Qahtan al-Obaid, the museum director - is not finished, but one gallery is open to the public.

The man who managed the renovation, 27-year-old Mahdi Aloosawi, has spent the past three years painting, building and installing pipelines and electricity. The building was for years used as an operational centre by the British army, and had been severely damaged by militia who objected to their presence in the city. Once a symbol of power and grandeur, it had become a ruin. The front facade and columns were falling apart.

"At first I really fought with myself about taking on the job of renovating a palace once owned by Saddam," says Aloosawi. It troubled him that the building had been constructed in the mid-1990s, a period when the country was suffering from war and famine.

"On the day that I saw it for the first time, I realised that it had not been built with bricks but with the blood of the people. On the day of the opening, though, I cried twice. Out of happiness. Because I saw how much the museum in this space meant to Iraqis."

The elaborate ceilings have now all been cleaned and re-painted.

Aloosawi is most proud of the front balcony. He tried to repair it while preserving its original design, which was more than 100 years old. "It was no easy feat for any carpenter," he says. "It was a real challenge but I think it's beautiful."

Most Iraqis under Saddam's regime knew nothing of what went on behind the palace walls. Engineer Duray Tawfik, from HWH Associates, the British engineering company overseeing the project, says he was horrified to learn that three meals were cooked each day by Saddam's staff, in case the leader ever turned up. He never did.

"When we came here, we discovered 2,000 names of Saddam etched into the walls and woodwork - Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein - everywhere!" he says. The new prime minister wanted all of them removed, "but to remove them all, we would have had to demolish the whole building. Besides, I guess this is all a part of our history now too".

Basra's previous museum was looted in 1991. Half its objects were stolen and the director was shot dead. It's now the job of Qahtan al-Obaid, the new director, to try to replace what was lost.

He's returned hundreds of objects from Baghdad to Basra, their original home - but this time he hopes they will be safe. The British Army and the British Museum have been helping curate the exhibition. The museum is particularly important when you consider the destruction carried out by so-called Islamic State (IS) in the north of the country, says John Curtis, a curator at the British Museum, who has been advising on the project.

"Of course today we can see destruction all around the region. Particularly in northern Iraq - the great Assyrian sites of Nimrod and Nineveh. They're so badly damaged. There's appalling atrocities going on in Syria in terms of cultural heritage, so in the midst of all this it at least is a beacon of fresh light to see this new museum opening in Basra."

Huge steel doors guard the entrance to the museum. According to Obaid, you can hammer the glass cabinets as hard as you can but they won't break. The first thing you see as you enter is early Islamic pottery made in Basra and a display of coins from ancient Parthia in 350BC. A huge Sassanian empire tomb occupies the middle of the gallery.

Basra is a city rich in culture, art and history, but it has lacked a place to celebrate its heritage.

"Poetry and theatre happen all the time here in Basra," says Obaid. "But it's quite underground and on the main scene it's only the privileged who can afford it. We want to expand this museum so it becomes a cultural centre, where people can come and be creative for free. We just need the money to do it."

The gallery that's just opened is the first step towards this goal. Now Friends of Basra Museum, a charity set up to realise the project, has applied for more funding from the British Council to transform the other rooms of the palace.

"You wouldn't believe the interest from the public," says Obaid. "Social media has just exploded." At the opening a man approached the team to say he has many artefacts he wants to donate - including what he says is the front door from the first church to be built in the city.

"It may seem strange to house a museum in this palace," Obaid adds. "Something built by Saddam, something that symbolises so much pain and inhumanity. But who has won this time? Saddam Hussein or civilisation? Civilisation always wins."

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