Saddam Hussein's chalets command breathtaking views of this turquoise-green valley. Now, thanks to an allied agreement, the Iraqi leader can get bird's-eye reports on allied maneuvers from Republican Guards inside the resort hideaways.
On Thursday, 2,500 American, British, French and Dutch marines and soldiers rolled into Saddam's chalet country, taking up positions near four of his summer palaces.The push extended the allied "security zone" more than 50 miles east from Zakho, an Iraqi town near the Turkish border and the site of an allied-run camp for returning Iraqi Kurdish refugees.
The new headquarters for the mission occupies an air base below the hillside town of Sirsenk, a summer vacation spot for wealthy families from Baghdad and Basra. American army engineers plan to repair the field and land C-130 and other transport planes.
Khalid Jayoobi, a captain in the Republican Guard, watched American helicopters and allied military convoys move around the valley from a perch high above the airfield.
"We can see everything from here," he said, with a laugh. "We are like an eagle over the Americans."
Under an agreement negotiated between allied and Iraqi commanders, a limited number of Iraqi soldiers will be allowed to stay in the palaces to protect them looting.
U.S. Army Col. Bob Flocke said a "minimum number" of Iraqi soldiers would be permitted to stay in each chalet.
However, some allied military intelligence officers complained that even one Iraqi soldier would be too many.
"Having those guys up there is giving intelligence to the enemy," said a major, who insisted on anonymity. "I mean, it's not like they're our friends or anything."
Jayoobi is watching the allies from one of the four presidential palaces near Sirsenk.
The palace, a two-story stone building with a red-tile roof and 20-foot-high Corinthian columns, unabashedly mixes Greco-Roman and Texas ranch-style architecture.
The house appeared empty. Several windows were broken. In the front hall, a huge portrait of Saddam, his head as big as a beach ball, hung slightly askew.
The house dominates a bluff in the center of Sirsenk, a stone's throw from stone cabanas owned by Iraq's jet set.
"This place is nothing," said Jayoobi, who allowed a reporter into the grounds but not into the house Thursday. "You should see the houses up the hill. There, you can see everything."
Another compound was visible in the distance, atop a mountain next to Sirsenk. A helicopter ride to the top revealed there were, in fact, two estates.
One contained a long, two-story building with a green roof. It sat on a ridge about 5,000 feet high. From that palace, the whole valley down to Zakho and the Turkish border opened up below.
A little way down the mountain, the view remained as stunning. Another compound, this time hacienda-style, dotted the landscape with little chalets.
A dam and a gurgling spillway gave the place a resortlike quality.
"When Saddam had parties up there, all of us could hear it," said Warda Samuel, a 25-year-old resident of Sirsenk, who was operating an outdoor cigarette stand.
"We never saw the palaces. But we heard them," said his uncle, Yusuf, 41.
Another hideaway is in the village of Inishak. Twelve-foot concrete walls and a group of Republican Guards protect it.
On other days, guards greeted passing reporters with smiles, shuffling to their cars in flip-flop shoes, requesting cigarettes, whiskey and mechanical advice for broken-down cars.
On Thursday, flak jackets dangling AK-47 cartridges replaced T-shirts, shiny black boots had ousted sandals. Where there was once a offer of tea, now came a curt: "Go, mister."