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American Gifts to Saddam MIA in Baghdad:
Somewhere in a basement in Iraq, Reagan's golden cowboy spurs [not shown] gather dust.
Filed October 23, 2002 By Jeremy Scahill
Cowboy boots, by Zeferino and Eli Rios, Mercedes, Texas, ca. 1953. Gift of the Rioses to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Photo: National Archives

BAGHDAD‹The Victory Museum in Baghdad has a million stories to tell. But they have little to do with Mesopotamia and Iraq's rich history and culture. The museum, also known as "The Triumph Leader Museum," houses the official archives of gifts given to President Saddam Hussein by foreign heads of state and other dignitaries.

There are traditional guyaberra shirts from Cuban President Fidel Castro, a small model of the Al Aqsa Mosque from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. There are golden swords and platinum chess sets. But don't look to find any gifts from the US. It's not that Ronald Reagan didn't shower the Iraqi president with them in the 1980s‹he did. Reagan gave the Iraqi leader pistols, medieval spiked hammers‹even a pair of golden cowboy spurs. The gifts flowed at a time when Washington directed an open pipeline of weapons and other goods to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War.

But the cases that once housed the expensive trinkets of Reagan's gratitude are now empty. They haven't been stolen and Saddam is not running around wearing the spurs and firing off rounds on Ronny's pistols. According to the chief guide at the museum, all of the gifts from America‹including three unidentified gifts from Bush the father prior to the Gulf War‹have been removed and placed in what he described as a "secret" location.

"They represented to us a time when the relationship between Iraq and the USA was very healthy," said the guide, who did not want us to print his name. "This was the best time for us during the 1980s and we will return them back when the war is over."

The only gift from America we managed to actually find in the museum was an NFL football autographed by the entire 1982 New York Giants team. A gift our guide told us was "from one of the players."

Also MIA are the letters from the elder Bush congratulating the Iraqi president on his reelection, as are the copies of Saddam's letter to Bush upon his victory in 1988. "We withdrew them to another place," the tour guide said.

The museum also contains a sprawling wall full of pictures of Saddam with foreign heads of state and dignitaries: Marshall Tito, Indira Ghandi, Nikola Coucesceau, Fidel Castro, Brezniev. There's even a picture of Saddam and a much younger Jacques Chirac drinking milk. But the guide told us that over the last decade, those relations have soured a bit.

In the places where the photos with Americans once stood, there is simply bare space. The picture of the current US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, shaking hands with the Iraqi leader in December 1983, when he served as Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East (see "The Saddam in Rumsfeld's Closet"), was nowhere to be found.

But it isn't simply because of the hostilities toward Iraq that gifts have been removed. Some of them have great monetary value and the museum guide says they have been removed in preparation for possible US bombing. "Because of the American aggression and we want to save them. The aggression is not finished. Until the bombing is finished, until the shooting is finished, the aggression continues."

Photo courtesy of Iraqi Mission to the United Nations.

The museum guide is an extremely pleasant man, who speaks both Russian and English. He is from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and takes his job seriously and carries it out with tremendous pride. He can tell you test scores achieved in primary school by young Saddam ("the highest marks"). Standing over an elegant chess set, he confides, "the president is an excellent player, but he doesn't have time." He kisses a model copy of the Holy Q'uran written entirely with Saddam's blood. And he becomes very sober when asked about the Iraqi leader's 1959 failed assassination attempt against then-Iraqi President Abdul Karim Qasim.

"Our president and his friend tried to kill him, but they failed unfortunately," he said, adding: "[Qasim] was an ungood man, a bad man‹quarellsome"

As we wound up the tour, our guide told us that he hoped the time would soon come when the museum can take Reagan's golden spurs and pistols out of hiding. "We hope that the relationship will get back because we want to live safe and the battle didn't bring us anything‹only blood, death and orphans. We hate war, believe me."

Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.

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