For most of the war, nine gaudy palaces outside Baghdad - monuments to Saddam Hussein's grandeur and questionable taste - served as the headquarters for the American military in Iraq.
Officers are now vacating them, and, like moving out of a long-occupied house, busy with the colossal job of sorting what to take and what to leave.
Convoys roll out daily, but not everything will fit. Hundreds of cars will be left behind. The military has weighed what items of historical or memorial value should be taken out together with the troops before December 31, when the last United States soldiers are to leave. One item going with the Americans is the toilet that Saddam Hussein used while detained, bound for a military police museum in Missouri.
One item staying is General David H Petraeus's bed. For nearly a decade he and all other commanding generals in Iraq slept, strangely, in a bed with a pastel-hued, lacquered headboard depicting in frieze two doves clasping ribbons in their beaks, against a field of pink and blue poppies.
When American troops commandeered the palace complex that included this room for barracks and headquarters early in the war they retained the original French Provincial-style furnishings, including the bed.
"We're not taking anything that the Iraqis had," Lt. Col. Jerry E. Brooks, an Army historian, said on a tour of the base this week. "We are only taking stuff that we put in, we utilized, and when we didn't need it anymore, we took it home."
Encircled in 27 miles of concrete wall, Camp Victory is the largest of 505 bases once operated by the United States in Iraq. All but 11 are closed now. Camp Victory, a panoramic spread, will likely be among the last to turn out the lights. Hundreds of thousands of United States soldiers served here or passed through. During the increase in troops sent to Iraq starting in 2007, 42,000 soldiers and about that many contractors lived at Victory.
As the final chapter of America's war in Iraq unfolds, the military will not reveal the exact closing date of Camp Victory because outside its walls insurgents remain active, and could target departing convoys. "Every time you put a truck through, it is a risk," Colonel Brooks said. That is a reminder of the long-accepted reality here: that despite thousands of Americans lives lost and the billions in goodwill projects for Iraqis, America is also leaving behind something that is not-quite peace. The camp's name almost becomes a question mark.
"It's not about winning or losing but making significant progress," said Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top American spokesman in Iraq.
The interiors of the nine palaces will be left as they were found. Seabees, or naval repair men, fixed battle damage and wired the palaces for broadband Internet and 110-volt electricity, but otherwise left the faux marble, gold-colored leaf and kitschy furniture unaltered. That includes a chair that Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, gave to Saddam Hussein. It is an iconic Saddam-era piece with arm rests forming the heads of lions. So many soldiers posed in this throne for photographs that the upholstery is threadbare. It will be in Al Faw palace when the military hands over the keys.
Most of the thousands of soldiers garrisoned here lived in trailer courts called "Chewvilles," a name derived from the containerized housing units, or CHUs. Tens of thousands of these will remain. The United States is leaving several hundred nonmilitary vehicles, once used to tool around the huge base, with the rationale that shipping them back would cost more than their value secondhand. The military is leaving $110 million worth of equipment.
At Camp Victory, the military named dozens of locations for dead soldiers, like the Zembiec Helipad in honor of Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec, killed in action in Baghdad in 2007. Memorials and plaques will be displayed at United States bases. The military also cleared out the chapels of all Christian religious posters and symbols.
"How does it feel to be the last division in Iraq?" ruminated Brig. Gen. Bradley A. Becker, the deputy commander, who is helping oversee the withdrawal. "Some say it's not very sexy that you are the ones closing Iraq down. It's a huge responsibility and an honor. I'm glad we're the ones chosen to do it." The last hot meal will be served here on November 20, an early Thanksgiving dinner. After that, soldiers will eat field rations during their final weeks at the base. The Burger King, Taco Bell and Subway that brought some American comfort to Iraq are already gone.
Saddam Hussein and his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as Chemical Ali, were imprisoned on an island in an artificial lake in the center of the base, separated by a causeway with a drawbridge. The site, called Building 114, was top secret. The United States military left unrepaired the exterior bomb damage as a disguise, and built a maximum security prison inside. "What you wanted to do was ensure that no attempts were made to break Chemical Ali or Saddam Hussein out of jail," Colonel Brooks said. The building has no electricity on Saturday, and it is inky black inside. Roof tiles have fallen. Wires protrude from the wall.
The stainless-steel toilet that the Americans are taking, along with a steel door from Mr. Hussein's cell, are already headed for the military police museum in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
As inmates, Mr. Hussein and his cousin took up gardening in the exercise yard. The planter boxes from this meagre, late-life hobby remain derelict - the plywood cracked and broken, filled with baked mud and cigarette butts. The future of Mr. Hussein's garden is unclear.
©2011 The New York
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