Marines uncover palace fit for a king

Home of Hussein opulence in Tikrit offers little Iraqi resistance, many looters

War In Iraq

April 15, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TIKRIT, Iraq - The breeze off the Tigris blew through the empty halls of Saddam Hussein's grandest palace yesterday, its once fearsome opulence reduced, it seemed, to the most crushing sort of banality.

Here on the bookshelf, for instance, were The Collected Works of Saddam Hussein, Volumes I through X, barely cracked. In the next room was a tablet of paper, imposing in its plainness, labeled simply "The President." Then, in the bathroom, were signs of a hurried exit: a cabinet door open, a crumpled towel on the floor, a pair of men's underwear still hanging on the rack.

The end came yesterday for the last and most formidable redoubt of Saddam Hussein's reign, as thousands of U.S. Marines poured into his hometown after a supposed collection of his staunchest bitter-enders finally gave up or ran away.

There was a fight, to be sure; it took most of Sunday and most of the night. But when the daylight came and Marines began to move, the fierce resistance anticipated here gave way to empty streets. Hussein's men were gone.

As the night fell, the U.S. officers leading the battle treated themselves to a view of the Tigris and the green flatlands beyond it, setting up their command post amid the mansions and monuments and artificial lakes that Hussein had presumably enjoyed only weeks before.

"Wow, this looks like Las Vegas," Capt. Tyrone Franklin said as he stared out on the panoramic grounds.

Instead of a big fight, the Marines found a city inextricably bound up with Hussein: his vanity, his ambition, his ability to reward and to punish. Yesterday the people of Tikrit took their first steps into the new world without the man who loomed over them for so long. The Marines spent much of the day finishing off their enemies and wondering where the rest of them had gone.

It was still early, and the looters had not yet come. Ahmed Farhan, a 22-year-old student, wandered about the grounds of Hussein's palace, looking like a country boy in the city for the first time.

His eyes were wide and his mouth was agape as he took in the breathtaking extravagance that Hussein had lavished on the Tikrit Presidential Palace: two miles of riverfront property and perhaps 90 buildings in all, including homes, offices, hotels and servant quarters. There were lakes, and the lakes had swans. Ducks and rare birds glided by on the breeze.

"All my life I have dreamed of this palace," Farhan said. "We were never allowed to see it."

Later yesterday, when the looters came, they carried away all the things that Hussein had purchased: the carpets and stoves, the paintings and gilded chairs.

Farhan said he was not much interested in taking such things. But the fighting in the last two days left most shops closed, and when he spotted an Arabic romance novel, Farhan picked it up. His shortwave radio needed some batteries, and Farhan pocketed a pack of double A's.

"I would like to have the houses, too, but only one," he said, surveying the grounds. "I don't know how anyone could lead such a life."

Outside the palace, the streets of Tikrit were given over to the Marines. Before venturing into the city, the Americans dropped leaflets urging the residents to stay inside, advising them that anyone out would be presumed to be a combatant.

The Iraqi army seemed to have read the leaflets, too. Just two days ago, Marine officers estimated that there were 2,500 Iraqi soldiers in the city, including senior members of the Republican Guard. Following a pattern that began weeks ago, the Marines fought a few sharp engagements and then watched their enemies vanish.

"There wasn't a lot of resistance," Maj. Chris Snyder said. "We're not sure where they all went."

A clue of sorts appeared outside the palace itself. Three local men approached and introduced themselves. They were dressed in street clothes. They had spent the last two nights in the city and agreed that the fighting had been minimal. When asked what they what they did for a living, they answered in unison.

"We're in the Republican Guards," the three men said.

Indeed, the three, who share tribal bonds with Hussein, said they had fought for many years in the once vaunted army, in Kuwait and elsewhere. When the U.S. and British invasion began they were stationed in a place called Radwaniya, near Baghdad, and they found the American bombings so intense that they retreated home to Tikrit.

They were still soldiers, but when they heard that the Americans were coming this way, they took off their uniforms for good.

"We're not cowards," said Borhan Abdul Karim, within earshot of an American soldier. "But there's no point to fighting when the Americans have this aviation, and there is no way we can win."

As the day wore on, more and more residents slipped past roadblocks to loot the palaces.

One man, Maaruf Hussein said he would not allow himself to be burdened by guilt for taking Hussein's belongings.

"Nobody likes to steal," Hussein said. "But he never made us feel like were part of the country."

Which brought Hussein around to the carpets he put on top of his car.

"I am going to put them down in my house, and whenever someone comes and walks on them, I will tell them that these came from Saddam Hussein's palace."

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