Basra, Iraq – The king size bed in Saddam Hussein’s superyacht is made, the silk curtains around it have been drawn back and, in the gold-rimmed bathroom next door, a barber’s chair awaits its occupant.
But the Iraqi dictator never boarded the 82-meter (270-foot) “Basrah Breeze” built for him in 1981 – and its amenities will now be enjoyed by the pilots who guide shipping in and out of the port of Basra, the main southern city.
In common with other treasures left by Saddam, toppled in 2003 during the US-led invasion of Iraq and hanged three years later for crimes against humanity, the governments that succeeded him have been struggling to find a use for the ship.
Since Iraq got it back in 2010 following a court battle and a three-decade odyssey abroad, it has been mostly moored in Basra.
Equipped with a presidential suite comprising Saddam’s private quarters, dining rooms and bedrooms, as well as 17 smaller guest rooms, 18 cabins for crew and a clinic, the opulently equipped and decorated vessel was put on the market for $30 million.
The government failed to find a buyer, and for the past two years the “Basrah Breeze” has served Basra University, hosting researchers on trips to study marine life.
“The presidential yacht is in a very good condition. Its two engines and generators are functioning,” said Abdul-Zahra Abdul-Mahdi Saleh, its captain. “It only needs periodic maintenance.”
But authorities have now decided to moor it permanently as a hotel and recreation facility for the southern port’s pilots, many of whom live in distant cities.
“The port needs the boat to be a station where sea pilots can rest,” said Basra port spokesman Anmar al-Safi.
Built by a Danish shipyard while Iraq was at war with Iran, the yacht was passed on to Saudi Arabia – then a Saddam ally – to protect it from air strikes on Basra, officials giving Reuters an exclusive tour said.
The kingdom, which fell out with Saddam after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, then handed the vessel over to Jordan. Its subsequent movements were unclear until Iraq tracked it down in the French resort of Nice, where a court seized it and sent it home.
While the “Basrah Breeze” survived the turmoil of Saddam’s decline and demise, its sister ship “al-Mansur” – which he also never boarded – suffered a different fate, sinking in the Shatt al-Arab waterway that passes through Basra after it was hit by US planes and then stripped bare in the chaotic aftermath of his overthrow.
Saddam had ordered it in 2003 to leave Umm Qasr, Iraq’s biggest port outside Basra, where it had been moored, to Basra in a vain attempt to avoid air strikes.
“I told the captain of the yacht, who was a brigadier, to get rid of the military uniforms of the crew, weapons and munitions and pose as civilian ship in case it is caught by the American warships,” said Ali Hussein, a port pilot who guided the yacht at the time.
As regards “Basrah Breeze,” Basra museum has not given up hope of persuading the port to allow it to dock the vessel next to its exhibition halls in one of Saddam’s former palaces overlooking the Shatt al-Arab.
“Future generations could see how a dictator lived,” said Jawad Abdul Kadhim, the museum’s deputy director.