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
The Baath Party and Republican Guard elite who fled seemed to have stripped their mansions and palaces of many incriminating documents, but they didn't take everything. They left files, ledgers, logbooks, diaries, journals, manuals, photographs and reams of boilerplate announcements, regulations and official declarations.
Ordinary Baghdad residents, who looted portions of the palace complex for about a day before U.S. soldiers took firm control, also left these "accoutrements" of the Hussein regime.
Men including Chief Warrant Officer Steven Walker, a military counterintelligence specialist, are poking through it now, along with teams of Special Forces soldiers and groups the soldiers refer to as OGAs - Other Government Agencies such as the CIA and FBI.
"You really have to sift through a lot of stuff to find something of value, but it's there," Walker said.
From the detritus comes clues to the character of a conflicted regime.
At a spa where photos of Hussein and his sons grace the walls, a desk apparently used by Odai Hussein contains luxury car descriptions downloaded from Yahoo for an Aston Martin V-12 sports car priced at $231,260 and a $77,850 Mercedes-Benz. Next to it is another Yahoo page of Quranic verses titled "The Importance of Being Truthful."
'Saddam's love shack'
A split-level house on the palace grounds, nicknamed "Saddam's love shack" by U.S. troops even though no evidence exists that Hussein ever stayed there, is decorated in 1970s disco: brown shag carpet, Naugahyde bean bag chairs, smoked bedroom mirrors. The cassette tape player featured "The Bee Gees Greatest Hits Vol. II" and "Disco Festival '85."
In a sunken bar were bottles of Johnny Walker, Otard cognac and Seguin French brandy. The shower slippers were hot pink plastic. The trash cans were heart-shaped. The sunken garden was studded with plastic ferns.
Yet in a glass credenza was elegant Chinese porcelain. There was also an entire set of English bone china emblazoned with the royal seal of the J.A.J. al-Sabah ruling family of Kuwait. Apparently it had been looted from Kuwait during the 1990 invasion and put on prominent display in a house whose walls bore fantasy paintings of full-busted women and muscular men in mullet haircuts slaying dragons and snakes with swords.
David Zucchino writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun