When Saddam Hussein decided to build the world's biggest mosque, he turned to France and its modern masters of mighty minarets.
France built the world's largest existing mosque in Morocco, and Paris boasts pharaonic projects like the Grand Arch at La Defense and the renovated Louvre with its glass pyramid.So Saddam has turned to French architects for his dream of a massive place of worship that will literally contain the Iraqi strongman's thumbprint.
The man who has caught Baghdad's eye is architect Francois Barriere, a lifelong Egypt-lover who lives and works in the central French town of Limoges, famous for its porcelain.
Barriere wants to build a 510-foot obelisk, complete with offices and a revolving restaurant, in Paris marking 200 years since France acquired the ancient one now on the Place de la Concorde.
Last fall, a French media report on the mega-obelisk wound up in the Iraqi newspaper Babil, owned by Saddam's eldest son Odai, and Barriere's phone rang.
It was the Iraqis.
"First I thought someone was playing a joke," said the jovial 63-year-old architect, who usually earns his living by drawing up individual homes and commercial buildings.
But then came the invitation to Baghdad from Ahmed al-Azzawi, charge d'affaires of the Iraqi section at the Moroccan Embassy in Paris. Barriere was told that a visit would not break the U.N. embargo against Iraq, since he was providing advice, not materials - so he went.
For several years Saddam has been planning his mega-mosque, a marble and ceramic masterpiece with eight minarets, covering 75 acres on a former airport site in south Baghdad, Barriere said.
Four minarets are to measure 935 feet - almost the height of the Eiffel Tower. They would surround a dome 440 feet in diameter and 390 feet high - three times the size of Saint Peter's cathedral in Rome. Lasers from the minarets would mark the site by night.
Barriere showed a picture of the mockup, which shows the mosque sur-rounded by a large pool filled by the Tigris River.
Meandering footpaths cross the pool, forming an outline of the map of the Arab world. One island is in the shape of Saddam's thumbprint, topped by a large S from the leader's signature.