BAGHDAD, Iraq - It was as if the Iraqi dictator, an orphan who grew up poor, wanted to prove to himself that children who lost their fathers could still lead fairy tale lives.
So, once upon a time, Saddam Hussein built the lavish, $40 million Orphans Village in southwestern Baghdad. The campus, which opened 2 1/2 years ago, had landscaped gardens, columned classrooms, air-conditioned dormitories and a mosque. More than 600 orphans swam in the village pool, rode horses, played basketball and tennis. They were served by a battalion of teachers, cooks, cleaners, gardeners, nurses and drivers.
But then coalition forces invaded Iraq. Hussein absconded, leaving chaos in his wake, and unleashing a fierce struggle over control of Orphans Village.
Now it is up to Baghdad's new rulers, the U.S. military, to try to ensure that everyone lives happily ever after.
The trouble began a couple of days before coalition forces invaded. Orphans and workers fled the compound, they said, because it was next to a likely target for bombers - a ranch owned by the Iraqi dictator. Two missiles struck the village during the air campaign.
When the workers returned a few weeks later, they found most buildings occupied by an army of 700 squatters. Among the newcomers were conscript soldiers who fled the battlefield, a man cashiered by the secret police and scores of others from Baghdad's underclass.
To staff members' horror, the new residents were busy dividing the big offices and dormitory rooms into apartments, using scavenged brick and mortar.
Orphans were distressed.
"We were happy here," said Rosa Nuradeen, 13, standing on the steps of the village school, one of the few buildings not occupied by outsiders. "It was a calm place, and safe. Nobody could threaten us, like now."
Nuradeen lost her father, once an engineer with a big Baghdad company, to cancer a few years ago. Authorities determined that his illness was related to a missile that struck her parents' home during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, so she was offered shelter in the orphanage, which accepted children between the ages of 2 and 18.
Now, like most of the village's orphans, Nuradeen is living with a relative - in this case, her mother, who has an apartment in Baghdad.
As about 50 orphans waited yesterday for a bus to take them away, a bearded man wearing a black robe and a turban stormed up to the school. The Shiite cleric, Radi Ismail Shaki, moved recently to Orphans Village from southern Iraq.
He was enraged that teachers had been quoted in an Iraqi newspaper as calling him and other newcomers "gypsies." Gypsies are identified with dancing and carousing here, and the label is considered slanderous in this socially conservative society.
"You tell everyone who asks here we are gypsies!" Shaki shouted at an orphanage official, shaking his finger. "We are not gypsies! Am I a gypsy? I will kill you! I carry a weapon! We are not afraid!"
Shaki stalked off. But a couple of his followers remained, arguing in a slightly calmer manner with orphanage staff.
"They tell everyone who comes here that we are not good people," complained one squatter. "But we are families here. We didn't leave our homes when Hussein left, as they did."
A teacher interrupted.
"He is a murderer. He is a criminal. How can you talk with him?" she demanded.
Raskayia Akhmad Hasoun, another teacher, lived in campus apartments that were provided rent-free. When she finally felt it was safe to return home, she was heartbroken.
"Now they are sitting in my house," said the middle-age mother of four. "They point guns at me and tell me to go away."
Many of the 440 people who worked here are, like Hussein, members of the Sunni Muslim minority and until recently enjoyed a privileged position in Iraqi society.
Eager to restore some semblance of the status quo, workers here want the new government to evict the squatters, bring back the orphans and run the institution as before. Perhaps, they suggested, the coalition might even expand it.
Fauzi Taha Markaz, the 63-year-old village manager, insisted that the orphanage was built for rich and poor, Sunni and Shiite, Baath members and common citizens.
"They were saying that our orphans were the sons and daughters of the closest family of Saddam Hussein and those with high positions in the government," he said. "But that was not true."
Meanwhile, the squatters say it is obvious that the orphanage was reserved for the children of the well-connected, a posthumous reward for Baathist loyalty.
"When the mother of an orphan picks up her son and daughter with the latest expensive car, her children are not orphans," said Abu Hassan, an unemployed construction worker who has emerged as the leader of the village's new residents. "We are the orphans. We have no homes, no cars, no jobs."
Some of the squatters say they were evicted from their homes to make way for new military bases.