BAGHDAD -- US bombs never hit Saddam Hussein's grandiose presidential palace in Baghdad, making its ample meeting rooms and vast conference tables an ideal headquarters for US-led occupation authorities after the war.
Now the building -- the physical seat and biggest symbol of Hussein's 23-year dictatorship -- is the likely site for the next US Embassy in Iraq, US officials in Washington and Iraq said this week.
A State Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the palace is among several locations under consideration for the embassy, where the US government's official representative will be based after power is handed over to an Iraqi government by July 1.
Critics say the move will show Iraqis and the world that the US intends to remain the true power in the country.
Currently the building, sealed inside a US-occupied neighborhood that sprawls alongside the Tigris River in central Baghdad, holds the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the US-led entity that oversees Iraq.
If the transition goes as planned, the authority will be dissolved and US affairs will be directed from the same building, which will become the embassy, a coalition official said on condition of anonymity.
"Although the CPA will cease to exist on July 1, there will still be much work to accomplish and the US will still have many interests to pursue here," the official wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Therefore, the logical replacement for CPA is an American Embassy and we expect that CPA, or at least a part of it, will evolve into the embassy."
However, no final decision designating the palace has been made, the official said, adding that the site search was still in the early stages.
After US military columns rolled into Baghdad, troops set up their cots in the palace's opulent ballroom, with grubby troops washing themselves in its marble-walled bathrooms with gold-plated fixtures.
Until recently, the roof of the four-story, 600-foot-long building was topped with four 30-foot-tall busts of Hussein wearing a Mogul helmet. The US-led occupation administration ordered the bronze sculptures removed last week.
A Pentagon official in Baghdad said an official survey of possible embassy sites, including the palace, will be conducted in Baghdad today. Others here have said the palace is the most likely site because it's big and secure.
If the building does become the US Embassy, analysts say its negative symbolism as the previous seat of Iraq's dictatorship will be reinforced when US representatives move in.
"If we want to symbolize American plans to dominate Iraq after the transition to self-government, we could not choose a better site," said Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University in New York. "If we want a credible signal that we'll fade into the background after liberating the country, the choice could hardly be worse."