Putting the welcome mat out in Baghdad

Baghdad palace

The Iraqi capital is probably not the first place you would think of when organising an international conference but, despite lingering security concerns, the city is keen to host such events.

A workman in blue overalls was lying flat on his back in the unkempt grass of what a sign proclaimed to be the North Lawn, but what really caught my attention were the two lengths of rope extending diagonally upwards from his body.

These led eventually to another workman, suspended precariously on a plank halfway up the facade of Baghdad's al-Rasheed Hotel, where he was busy cleaning the tiles. The first man - nonchalantly smoking a cigarette and apparently daydreaming - was his human anchor.

The hotel was sprucing itself up to welcome guests at not one but several international events being held in town, including the Gulf Energy Forum and an Arab League conference on Palestine.

Both were taking place within Baghdad's Green Zone, the secure area that is surrounded by walls of concrete and steel and a whole series of military checkpoints. Coming in from the airport, it can take up to an hour to get through them all.

Undaunted, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry has laid out the welcome mat, assuring visitors to the city that there is nothing to fear. All security is merely a precaution, they say.

What's more, an international trade fair - with exhibitors from all over the Middle East, Europe and North America - has also been proclaiming the message that Baghdad is open for business.

Given the immense oil wealth of the country and the amount of reconstruction that still needs to be done, there is certainly plenty of business to be negotiated there.

I was attending the Arab League conference. That was not only for its newsworthiness - given the recent UN vote on granting non-member observer status to Palestine - but also because it was being held in the late Saddam Hussein's main palace.

I was not around for the downfall of President Saddam in 2003 but, along with millions of other people, I had ogled the garish opulence of his homes shown on TV news footage after he was ousted from power.

Several of those complexes were occupied by US troops, who lounged around with their feet up on the deposed dictator's desk.

A decade later, the main palace does not disappoint. Portraits of Saddam have, of course, been removed and a lot of the original furniture went AWOL. But the principal reception room, with its octagonal atrium, remains a monument of self-aggrandising kitsch.

Saddam saw himself as a new Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, as well as believing himself to be heir to Saladin, the Muslim warrior who seized Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

The walls of the reception room are decorated with huge murals of the Mosque of Omar and other Jerusalem landmarks.

The painted ceiling depicts eight Arabian horses rearing upwards towards a pale blue sky, within which there floats another depiction of the Dome of the Rock, intimating the Prophet Mohammed's ascent to Heaven.

While the poor Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was giving us participants at the Arab League Conference on Palestine a formal welcome, half of us were staring up at the ceiling open-mouthed.

Moreover, as I later discovered, the presidential loo, just outside (now available for general use) is larger than many people's sitting room, the solitary WC and bidet almost lost amongst all the exquisite marble.

Back at the al-Rasheed Hotel, a former British diplomat was demanding whisky. This caused considerable consternation from our hosts because, since the Shia-led government has been in charge, Baghdad has largely gone dry.

The open-air bar down at the bottom of the hotel gardens lies abandoned. And the Sheherazade Night Club looks even more forlorn, its sound system ripped out, bare wires snaking across the soiled carpet.

"The tennis courts still function," a bell boy reported cheerily. "And there's always the cigar lounge."

The al-Rasheed's cigar lounge, with its comfy armchairs, is indeed a refuge for foreign guests who need to wind down after a long day of speeches and the sumptuous buffet meals laid on at the so-called Great Dinner Room of Saddam's Palace.

Image caption The al-Rasheed Hotel reopened in 2011

In the evening, we Arab League conference participants and journalists duly gathered in the cigar lounge to swap notes. We barely raised an eyebrow when a loud bang sounded somewhere in the distance.

"Probably a controlled explosion," a Dutch NGO worker opined. "If they see a particularly suspicious car, they blow it up."

And spirits were raised when the former British diplomat turned up triumphantly bearing a bottle of Chivas Regal whisky, courtesy of the Iraqi foreign minister himself.

For all the special circumstances operational in Baghdad today, Arab hospitality had not let us down.

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