Prayers in a palace for I Corps in Iraq

BAGHDAD - Few places in the Middle East offer garish luxury quite like the Al Faw Palace, with its soaring marble columns, massive chandeliers and intricately carved ceilings.

But the lavishness of a bygone era seemed to melt away amid the light of hundreds of handheld candles near the end of a Christmas Eve service Thursday.

“We know what it is like to serve and strive for good will on earth and peace among men,” said Col. Kenneth Stice, a Fort Lewis soldier deployed to minister to service members in Iraq.

The Al Faw, once a symbol of Saddam Hussein’s opulent lifestyle, now sits in the heart of Victory Base Complex and is home to commanders leading the U.S. military’s 115,000 troops in Iraq.

The 1,000 troops of Fort Lewis’ I Corps, which has been deployed since April to run daily military operations across the country, work out of the palace and hosted Thursday’s service, which included hymns and scripture readings.

Dozens of water bottles, each holding a red, green or purple chemical light, sat on the foot bridge leading to the palace. Inside, organizers arranged chairs around a podium, and set up an Advent-candle display and Fort Lewis’ 56th Army Brass Quintet.

The event was a nondenominational Christian service, with seven chaplains delivering prayers just feet from Koranic passages written on the walls in 24-karat gold lettering.

The lights were dimmed ahead of the singing of “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night,” and attendees held small white candles. The singing echoed off the marble walls, which gave off an orange glow from the hundreds of small flames.

The 400 people in attendance filled the chairs assembled in the rotunda, formed several lines behind them and crowded the second- and third-floor balconies.

The service drew the eclectic crowd that forms the American war effort in Iraq: Marine generals, Army privates, Air Force pilots, Navy petty officers, private contractors and Ugandan security guards.

“I don’t know each and every one of you,” Lt. Col. Thomas Killgore, the deputy corps chaplain said during his sermon, “but our heavenly father does.”