BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. bombs never hit Saddam Hussein's grandiose presidential palace in Baghdad, making its ample meeting rooms and vast conference tables an ideal headquarters for U.S.-led occupation authorities after the war.
Now the building — the physical seat and biggest symbol of Saddam's 23-year dictatorship — is the likely site for the next U.S. Embassy in Iraq, U.S. officials in Washington and Iraq said this week.
A State Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the palace is among several locations under consideration for the embassy, where the U.S. government's official representative will be based after power is handed over to an Iraqi government by July 1.
Critics say the move will show the world that the U.S. intends to remain the true power in Iraq.
Currently the building, sealed inside a U.S.-occupied neighborhood that sprawls alongside the Tigris River in central Baghdad, holds the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (search), the U.S.-led entity that oversees Iraq.
If the transition goes as planned, the CPA will be dissolved and U.S. affairs will be directed from the same building, which will become the embassy, a coalition official said on condition of anonymity.
"Although the CPA will cease to exist on July 1, there will still be much work to accomplish and the U.S. will still have many interests to pursue here," the official wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Therefore, the logical replacement for CPA is an American Embassy and we expect that CPA, or at least a part of it, will evolve into the embassy."
However, no final decision designating the palace has been made, the official said, adding that the site search was still in the early stages.
After U.S. military columns rolled into Baghdad, troops set up their cots in the palace's opulent ballroom, with grubby troops washing themselves in its marble-walled bathrooms with gold-plated fixtures.
Until recently, the roof of the four-story, 600-foot-long building was topped with four 30-foot-tall busts of Saddam wearing a Mogul helmet. The U.S.-led occupation administration ordered the bronze sculptures removed last week.
A Pentagon official in Baghdad said an official survey of possible embassy sites, including the palace, will be conducted in Baghdad on Friday. Others here have said the palace is the most likely site because it's already in use, and is big and secure.
If the building does become the U.S. Embassy, analysts say its negative symbolism as the previous seat of Iraq's dictatorship will be reinforced when U.S. representatives move in. The choice could suggest to Iraqis that the United States will remain the true power in Iraq, some said.
"If we want to symbolize American plans to dominate Iraq after the transition to self-government, we could not choose a better site," said Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University in New York. "If we want a credible signal that we'll fade into the background after liberating the country, the choice could hardly be worse."
If things were going well for the Americans in Iraq — and for the Iraqis themselves — such symbols might not matter.
"Given that things are tense, security is still a problem and promised money hasn't arrived, this will be further evidence that we are up to no good," said Rachel Bronson, director of the Middle East Studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations (search) in New York.
The State Department official said the palace may be "the real estate" that can best house the embassy — at least until a new compound can be built.
U.S. airstrikes destroyed or damaged many other buildings in the surrounding presidential compound, which lies in the security area known as the "Green Zone." But the palace, on a favorite jogging route for U.S. government workers in Iraq, sits unscathed.
The previous U.S. Embassy, in east Baghdad's al-Mesbah section, was vacated in 1990 when the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. Polish diplomats took over that building, which is now the Polish Embassy.
After the 1991 Gulf War and until the U.S. invasion in April, U.S. affairs were handled at the Polish Embassy.