CAMP VICTORY, Iraq - 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.
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.
From Victory, 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.
The main worry is that when the U.S. troops leave, the sectarian violence which tore the country apart for years after the U.S. invasion could reignite, or even descend into full-on civil war.
Camp Victory 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.
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 in 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 buildings 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 that Sumner said could have also been a bobcat was spotted wandering around the base.
In the early days after the invasion, soldiers swam in the man-made lakes or toured the islands with paddle boats.
But quickly the atmosphere became more like bases back in the U.S. That meant rules and regulations and military police to enforce them. Sumner said during his unit's second week at Victory he was pulled over for speeding.
"After we moved onto our other place, we just tried to refuse to go back there whenever possible," he said.
Victory Base Complex was essentially a city, often hit by rockets or mortar shells. One time the violence came from within. In May 2009, a U.S. soldier shot and killed five fellow troops at a combat stress clinic.
The facility was so big it was divided into sections with different names. Troops could travel from Camp Styrker to Camp Liberty without leaving the base. A public bus system with posted routes transported people to the dining facilities, the gym or a dirt speedway where troops and contractors would race remote-controlled cars.
By the numbers supplied by the U.S. military, it was a substantial operation:
- The incinerators destroyed an average of 178,000 pounds of waste a day.
- A water purification plant produced 1.85 million gallons of water a day.
- A bottled water plant filled 500,000 one-liter bottles a day.
- Three separate plants produced 60 megawatts of power a day.
If soldiers grew tired of food at the massive chow halls, they could grab takeout at Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Cinnabon, Burger King or Subway.
At various stores they could buy anything from illegal DVDs to a Harley Davidson motorcycle delivered straight to their door back in the U.S. when they returned from the war. In the early days of the war, troops could even buy Saddam Hussein's personal silverware and place settings.
Troops and contractors visiting from other bases took tours of the palaces.
One particularly entertaining pastime was feeding the carp in the lake surrounding Al Faw palace, where the top generals and U.S. military officials were based. The aggressive fish would jump out of the water for cereal, Girl Scout cookies and Pop Tarts.
Off-limits to most troops: the jail used to house Saddam and some of his cohorts. In a dilapidated, bomb-damaged building encircled by concertina wire, American troops interrogated and guarded the former dictator before he was handed over to the Iraqis and executed in 2006.
The Iraqi government has not yet announced plans for the complex, prime real estate in a country sorely lacking in parks and public spaces. The Iraqi military is already using some parts, and there is talk of turning Saddam's jail cell into a museum.