Saddam Hussein's 82-metre superyacht Basrah Breeze is still on the water today but his larger yacht, 121-metre al-Mansur suffered a different fate. Now lying in the shallow waters of a major Iraqi city, Katia Damborsky discovers how it has become an unusual floating base for locals fishing on the river.
In March 2003, tensions between the US and Iraq were coming to a head. In the face of imminent invasion, the then-president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, ordered his yacht, 121-metre al-Mansur, to leave her berth in the port city of Umm Qasr and move 36 nautical miles upriver to be stationed in Basrah. Basrah was a stronghold of Iraq, producing much of the country’s oil and strategically located at the convergence of two rivers.
It would make sense to have a military ship manning the city’s harbour — and while al-Mansur was no military vessel, she did have reinforced steel decks, bulletproof windows almost five centimetres thick and high-grade on-board hospital facilities complete with an operating theatre.
But, she still wasn’t equipped to hold down the fort at Basrah. It has been reported — though not confirmed — that US and UK military forces intercepted a radio transmission that revealed the yacht’s movement. On her way up the river, she came under attack by fighter jets, which deployed specialised explosives that detonated just before impact, effectively blowing away much of the yacht’s upper decks. Eight bombs are thought to have hit her and although she didn’t sink, she was engulfed by a raging inferno that rendered her inoperable.
It would have been a remarkable sight for the people of Basrah, watching the dictator’s yacht ablaze and drifting unmanned down the Shatt al-Arab river. It was almost ironic — here was a yacht with the name meaning “God-assisted victor” or “conqueror” printed proudly on its bow, being reduced to a charred, bomb-blasted hull.
Like most yachts owned by dictators, al-Mansur was a symbol of Hussein’s power and prominence. She was delivered in 1983 (the same year that Hussein met with then-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld) by now-defunct Finnish shipyard Wärtsilä and as a gift from the Saudi Royal Family. The ongoing war in Iraq complicated the physical delivery of the vessel (she was technically completed in 1982) and she was stored at the shipyard in Finland before she could be eventually handed over the next year in Morocco.
But after the bombing, al-Mansur was a far cry from the pleasure palace that she started life as. It is understood that the yacht’s content was cleared by the local port authority and officials acting on behalf of Hussein. Even in her sorry, scorched state, she had a lot of valuable materials on board — expensive silverware, solid marble surfaces, exotic wood accents and thick velvet upholstery. The design theme of the yacht was “plush Arab hotel”, according to reporting by the BBC. She was even thought to have solid gold furnishings on board.
She was looted too, according to a source speaking to BOAT International, a local taxi driver who goes by Mohamad. Once she was plundered, opportunists began chopping away at the hull and selling it for scrap. No one put a stop to the practice — it was a war zone, after all.
Hussein's yacht remained upright for a few years after the bombing but was eventually scuttled close to Basrah’s dry docks. She’s in good company, with several other wrecked vessels rusting in the shallow water there. For the locals, it’s a constant reminder of the war — although, “you never forget the war,” says Mohamad.
The biggest problem that al-Mansur presents isn’t so much logistics, it’s the threat it poses to the water quality, says Mohamad. “We use this water for everything in our life,” says Mohamad and for that reason, “people would like to remove all the sunken ships.”
The wreck is owned by the government, but “no one knows” whether there are plans to remove it anytime soon. It’s the biggest vessel that’s sunk in the river, and it would be costly and complicated to dismantle and remove it, speculates Mohamad. For now, the wreck is used by local fishermen, who perch on the protruding decks and cast their lines into the water. Mohamad’s cousin is one such fisherman, using al-Mansur as a base for carp fishing.
Al-Mansur is not the victorious power symbol that her owner had in mind, but she does represent a small victory for the Iraqi people. After years of conflict, Iraq is repairing itself and souvenirs of its troubled past are slowly fading away — much like al-Mansur’s decaying hull.
The rest of Hussein's fleet
Just a few hundred metres from the remains of al-Mansur sits Basrah Breeze, the first yacht that Hussein owned. In contrast to her big sister, Basrah Breeze is on the water and remains in good condition. She is partially open to the public, serving as a floating museum dedicated to Basrah. The yacht is in largely the same state as when she was first launched over forty years ago, with busily-patterned walls, thick curtains and an opulent four-poster canopy bed in the master suite.
In 2007, she left Iraq and resurfaced in Nice, listed for sale with a £17 million price tag. She didn't find a buyer, possibly in part because of her dubious past and questions surrounding her ownership. She served a brief stint as a research vessel back in Iraq until her running costs were finally deemed too expensive.
Hussein also owned a 60-metre pleasure craft designed for cruising the rivers. It was more practical than al-Mansur and Basrah Breeze, but still shared the same luxurious finishes and military-grade protection. Its fate is not known.loading...