The iconic burning building, March 21, 2003
Fascinated by the imagery of the first days of the war, I became curious about a certain building that stood prominently in the Baghdad skyline (and many press photographs) that apparently was hammered many times by heavy bombing in the first week of the Iraq war.
- Update #1 10-11-2004 (more photos)
- Update #2 10-11-2004 (photos from a contractor stationed in Baghdad)
The "Council of Ministers Hall" (CMH), as I believe it is called, is shaped like an art-deco version of an Aztec Pyramid, with Arabic overtones. The smoking, flaming hulk of the CMH became a global icon of the Baghdad bombing - yet little if anything was said about the building itself. So my major three questions became 1) why it was so prominently featured in the news, 2) what was it called, and 3) what was its (former) purpose? And, like any good armchair-investigator these days, I fired up my Google search and took off.
Blasts light up the sky
"Why was the CMH featured so prominently in the news?"
It seems that a combination of factors led to the prominence of this building:
Downtown Baghdad, showing how close the Palestine Hotel and the CMH are.
Highlighted areas visible below.
Satellite view of the CMH, days after the bombing. Note the massive hole in the roof, near the blue dome on the building immediately below the CMH.
Essentially a horde of press photographers gathered into a high-rise hotel had front-row seats to the early bombing of the CMH and other government buildings nearby. It just so happened that the CMH was the nearest prominent building that was bombed repeatedly, and that it's a notable piece of architecture.
As an interesting side-note, the same combination of a concentrated press corps, US military actions and a convenient location near the Palestine Hotel also spawned the more famous iconic moment of the "Toppling of the Saddam Statue" in Firdos Square.
1. Palestine Meridian hotel, home to most foreign press. The lower rooftop to the right acted as a platform for reporters.
2. Firdos Square, capped by the now-famous, (now-toppled) statue of Saddam Hussein - barely visible on the southern edge of the oval.
3. The 14 Ramadan Mosque, famous backdrop to hundreds of video shots of Iraq recently.
Saddam's statue in Firdos Square, a before-and-after comparison
The backdrop for countless photos and video feeds from Baghdad before and during the war, Firdos Square and the 14th of Ramadan Mosque lie directly across the street from the Palestine Hotel. The square has become a de facto World Stage for Baghdad residents and visitors to express themselves to the globe. When the US tanks rolled into Firdos Square, they were essentially driving right onto that stage - and there was a conveniently-located statue of Saddam, center-stage left. I'm not suggesting the toppling was a staged event, but anyone active in that area would likely know that the world's eyes were on them.
"What was it Called?"
I'm calling it the "Council of Ministers Hall" (CMH), which is the straight story as near as I can tell. It seems (from press reports) that not even residents of Baghdad were exactly certain about the nature of this place. One pre-war news article called it "a pyramid-shaped structure reported to have housed security officials and the offices of Saddam's top aides." It's possible I'm wrong here - let me know if you know for sure what this building is.
A series of blasts at the CMH in another Late March attack
The major confusion about the name stems from the guesswork and rumor going on in the early reporting. Captions and news stories attached to these images describe the CMH as either "one of a number of key government buildings", or "part of Hussein's Palace Compound", or "a building which reportedly belonged to deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz" or "the Iraqi Ministry of Planning". A few, however consistently refer to the building as the "Council of Ministers" Hall or Building, and that matches some pre-war coverage of Tariq Aziz' offices as well.
Dawn begins to break over the burning hulk of the CMH
"What was its (former) purpose?"
If this is indeed the Council of Ministers Hall, then it was a government office building for the Council of Ministers, a part of the Iraqi government's Executive Branch. Headed by the well-known Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, it also housed offices for many other ministries, like foreign affairs, defense, religious affairs, agriculture, etc.
The CMH was apparently built in the late 1980's by CP Kukreja Associates, based in New Delhi. Interestingly, CP Kukreja does not list this building in their current portfolio, but it can be found in Google's cached version of their portfolio.
Daylight bombing nearby sends up smoke all around the CMH
Closer looks at the scorched remains of the CMH
The beginning of the end - Iraqi Republican Guards flee from US tanks along the Tigris, just in front of the CMH
Captured - A US Helicopter flies over the CMH days after Baghdad is taken
Several more Press Photos (with myriad labels for the building) - and some personal photos from a contractor stationed right next door to the CMH Building.
"The Iraqi Ministry of Justice Building, as it appeared in 1996" - an oppposing view from most of the ones above -
the Palestine Hotel and 14 Ramadan Mosque can just be seen at left in the distance
Early in September of 2004, I received email from "F", a civilian contractor with the U.S. Special Forces. It seems that "F" was looking for the identity of this building, since "F" was stationed just a stone's throw away from it, ("F" has lived in the building shown two pictures above with the Gold Dome since late 2003) and stumbled across this web page. "F" sent along some nice photos below, and allowed me to reprint them here.
Talking about the identity of the Pyramid-shaped building, "F" says: "I have met hundreds of people (locals, military, gov officials) and no one seems to know for sure what that one specific building was for....The overheads shots on Globalsecurity.org list the one story structures with the blue domes as the Council of Ministries while all the maps list the larger rectangular structure to the north as the Council of Minstries....I have heard the pyramid called Baath party HQ, Secret Intelligence, and too many others to recall. The maps of Baghdad also have a Church depicted nearby and I have yet to find that either"
"But this is a common problem of this area of Baghdad. The average Iraqi was not allowed around here during Saddam and those that worked here don't seem to come around much these days. Most of the structures within the International Zone (was the Green Zone until the hand over to the new Iraqi government) are unknown. Aside from the major palaces, which they themselves are attributed to belonging to every infamous Iraqi known, most of the buildings are not really known."
And, in a later email: "Met a linguist today who was in the army and in the green zone...He said the Pyramid building was designed to be the headquarters of a Ba'ath lead arab world which was the aim of the Ba'ath party." - so it may have been an HQ Building for some sort of grand Pan-Arabic Baathist organization?
I'd like to thank "F" very much for the four photos below.
"Panorama west north badghdad from dome" (click for larger 200k version) - CMH can be seen at far right.
All images originate from the following resources/sources: