From the detritus, clues to character of Hussein regime

Palaces and garish homes of elite reveal obsession with comfort and tribute

April 21, 2003|By David Zucchino | David Zucchino,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The regime of Saddam Hussein is dead. Its trappings and underpinnings are dying under the footfalls of U.S. soldiers.

At the dictator's propaganda headquarters, his dark eyes stare up from thousands of photographs scattered on the filthy floors. The chronicles of three decades of rule, of Hussein receiving Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan and kissing babies and mustachioed commandos, have been pawed through and stomped upon by soldiers after being looted by Iraqi civilians.

Western to its core

The garish mansions and palaces of Hussein's sons and cronies have been stripped bare and peeled open to expose an illusion. For all its claims to Islamic piety, the regime's elite was Western to its core. Their grand homes hid American computers, whiskey, pornography, videos and pop music. They drove big Chevys, smoked Marlboros and read Newsweek. They fired Beretta pistols and Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolvers in an indoor shooting range. They drank French champagne and Tanqueray gin with a twist.

A week of stepping through the rubble inside dozens of bombed-out buildings in the regime's walled-off palace and residential complex reveals a regime obsessed with comfort and tribute, in a setting marked by elegance and tackiness.

The grounds by the west bank of the Tigris River, long sealed from ordinary Iraqis by high stone walls, served as a private country club. The privileged set enjoyed Olympic-size swimming pools, weight rooms, sunken bars, polished marble floors, big-screen televisions and paddle boat rides on canals carved from luminous pale stone.

When the end came this month, their cash outweighed their discretion.

Hundreds of prominent Baath Party and Republican Guard officials living in palaces and mansions in a palm-lined paradise of rose gardens and orchards apparently couldn't carry every last groaning box of $100 bills they had amassed. More than $650 million in $100 bank notes was found by U.S. soldiers Friday in 164 metal boxes stored inside four woodland cottages that had been sealed with cinder blocks and concrete.

Until the fall of Baghdad, the elite soaked in sunken marble tubs and drank tea from English bone china, always under the gaze of a Hussein portrait, poster, mural or wall calendar.

Citizens could not see the armor-plated Mercedes, or the photos in Hussein's propaganda factory showing him waving to crowds from its open hatch.

They could not see the 25-foot Grady White cabin cruiser stowed in a warehouse, or the collection of vintage Chevrolets, Pontiacs, sports cars and classic convertibles.

They could not see Republican Guard insignia, a sinister eagle evocative of the Third Reich, pasted onto virtually every mansion wall and writing pad and desk blotter.

They knew nothing of the private zoos. At one animal pen, U.S. soldiers now feed live sheep to lions and cheetahs. One soldier, alas, had to shoot the brown bear when the animal escaped its enclosure and refused, even at the point of an M-4 rifle, to return inside.

Arsenal in every home

And the guns. The guns are one thing ordinary Iraqis might have known about. There was an arsenal in every home. Some bedrooms were supplied with gold-plated MP-5 machine guns. Others were stacked to the ceilings with boxes of Colt Diamondback .38 Specials, .357-caliber Combat Magnums and Sig Sauer pistols, still in their packing boxes, complete with owner instructions and generous supplies of boxed ammunition.

And what would a luxury home be without a bunker? They all had them, dank little sandbagged pits among the roses and privet hedges, poorly concealed by palm fronds. Along the broad avenues on the palace grounds, and on the roads leading in from the city, hundreds of bunkers had been dug in preparation for a U.S. attack.

The soldiers inside these bunkers lived a parallel existence of deprivation and discomfort. They ate stale bread and drank tea brewed on campfires in tin pots. Their supply kits looked like a child's toy kitchen set. They were issued no-brand soap, toothpaste and razors wrapped in filmy plastic. They survived on onions and dates.

Their weapons were ancient Soviet-era AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and Russian heavy machine guns. It was lethal stuff, but no match for U.S. tanks and A-10 Warthogs and laser targeting systems.

When the U.S. tanks rolled through April 7, thousands of soldiers conscripts, Republican Guards, Special Republican Guards and fedayeen ran for their lives. They peeled off their uniforms, helmets and boots, and tossed aside their weapons.

It's all still there in the bunkers and on the sidewalks, a tangle of poorly sewn wool trousers and jackets, thin-skinned green helmets, bulk sale combat boots, and snapshots of girlfriends and wives and school chums. Souvenir hunters can still find copious supplies of Special Republican Guard berets with the metal eagle insignia still attached.

Files, ledgers, logbooks

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