LATimes' entry in the 'tacky-ruling-elite' sweepstakes

Rohit Khare rohit at ics.uci.edu
Sun Apr 20 17:52:13 PDT 2003


A fine bit of color -- it's really hard to capture the tawdriness of  
the whole thing. I wonder if they'll be kept as "people's museums" for  
the new regime's propaganda machine, or just as the new regime's own  
housing... time will tell.

Rohit

http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-war- 
lifestyle20apr20004423,1,5713252.story?coll=la%2Dheadlines%2Dfrontpage
A LOOK INSIDE THE REGIME
Treading on the Trappings of Hussein's High Life
By David Zucchino, Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- The regime of Saddam Hussein is dead. Now its trappings and  
underpinnings are being crushed under the footfalls of American  
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 and kissing babies and mustachioed commandos, have been pawed  
through and stomped on by soldiers after being looted by Iraqi  
civilians.

The garish mansions and palaces of Hussein's sons and cronies have been  
stripped bare and peeled open to expose a chimera. 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 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 swimming pools, weight rooms, sunken  
bars, polished marble floors, big-screen TVs and paddleboat rides on  
canals carved from luminous pale stone.

When the end came earlier 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 American soldiers Friday in 164 metal boxes stored inside four  
woodland cottages that had been hastily sealed with cinder blocks and  
cement.

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 Saddam  
Hussein portrait, poster, mural or wall calendar.

A palace belonging to Hussein's son Uday was decorated with homages to  
his father, including an oil painting of an open-shirted Hussein,  
beaming like a burgher on a country picnic, watching Uday caress a  
tiger.

In an upstairs bedroom, dumped on the floor next to cognac bottles and  
pornography, was a box containing hundreds of key chains and lapel pins  
bearing Hussein's image apparently bestowed upon commoners as part of  
Uday's official duties.

*

Versailles Meets Vegas

The palace complex boasts the grandeur of Versailles but also the  
shallow glitz of Las Vegas and the low taste of Graceland.

The soaring dome of the gilded reception hall of the Republican Guard  
palace now has a perfectly round hole in its center as a result of an  
American bomb. The catastrophic explosion unmasked walls buttressed by  
sloppy concrete, moldings fashioned of flimsy wood painted gold,  
baroque furniture made of painted pine and enormous chandeliers of  
plastic shaped to look like cut glass.

This bizarre world was merely a rumor to ordinary Iraqis, who now claim  
people were shot dead merely for attempting to peer over the walls.  
Faisel Amin, a merchant seeking work as a translator for American  
soldiers, was craning his neck Saturday to see past a U.S. tank crew  
guarding a stone arch entrance to the palace grounds.

Outside, the dust and grit and windblown garbage of an Arab metropolis  
was swirling before Amin's sweaty face. From beyond the arch, whose  
gates had been smashed by American tanks, Amin caught a glimpse of  
graceful palms and violet bougainvillea and the shocking burst of reds  
and pinks from the manicured rose beds.

"You know the Forbidden City in China?" he asked. "This is Iraq's  
forbidden city. We still haven't seen it."

Citizens could not see the armor-plated Mercedes, or the photos in  
Hussein's propaganda factory showing the dictator 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, American  
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. At Uday's  
private zoo, U.S. Special Forces now feed ostriches and gazelles to  
three mangy lions. The cats snooze under a sign pasted up by the  
soldiers: "Anyone caught abusing our pets will be their next meal."

And the guns. The one thing ordinary Iraqis may have known about was  
the guns. There was an arsenal in every elite 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 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 an American 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 cheap 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 Soviet-era AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and  
Russian heavy machine guns. It was lethal stuff, but no match for  
American tanks and A-10 Warthogs and laser targeting systems.

When the American tanks rolled through on April 7, thousands of  
soldiers -- conscripts, Republican guard and Special Republican Guard  
troops 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.

The Baath Party and Republican Guard elites 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 American soldiers took firm control, also left  
these accouterments of the Hussein regime.

Men like Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steven Walker, a counterintelligence  
specialist, are poking through it now, along with teams of Special  
Forces 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. He added: "It's a long and tedious  
process."

*

Conflicted Regime

 From the detritus come clues to the character of a conflicted regime.

At a spa where photos of Hussein and sons Uday and Qusay grace the  
walls, a desk apparently used by Uday contains car descriptions  
downloaded from Yahoo for an Aston Martin V-12 priced at $231,260 and a  
$77,850 Mercedes-Benz. Next to it is another Yahoo page of Koranic  
verses titled, "The Importance of Being Truthful."

A two-story, split-level house on the palace grounds, nicknamed  
"Saddam's love shack" by American 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 are hot pink plastic. The trash cans  
are heart-shaped. The sunken garden is studded with plastic ferns.

Yet in a glass credenza was elegant Chinese porcelain and 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 with swords and mullet haircuts slaying dragons and snakes.

At the riverside mansions east of the palace, some Baath Party  
officials apparently returned to their homes after the American bombing  
campaign began. They carefully sealed broken windows with plastic and  
secured padlocks on windows and doors. Looters with crowbars and  
American soldiers with bolt cutters easily smashed in and took whatever  
they needed or wanted.

Journalists followed, pocketing bric-a-brac and souvenirs scattered  
among the broken glass and smashed marble.

At the two-story propaganda building around the corner, an entire staff  
had apparently toiled year after year to perpetuate the personality  
cult of Saddam Hussein.

Even in a nation where virtually every home, office and public edifice  
bears a photo, bust or mural of the dictator, the propaganda enterprise  
is a breathtaking sight.

File rooms contain thousands of photos of Hussein in every imaginable  
garb: Arab horseman, English country gentleman, Russian Cossack, Iraqi  
commando, business-suited statesman, uniformed commander in chief,  
German mountain climber.

There are endless shots of Hussein addressing his troops, conferring  
with generals, comforting widows, hugging schoolchildren and kissing  
bearded old men in kaffiyehs.

Hundreds of photo albums have been lovingly filled with more Hussein  
photos: the thinner, smooth-faced Hussein of three decades ago, the  
portly middle-aged Hussein, and the current jowly, age-spotted dictator  
in decline.

They are all dumped on the floors now, smeared with footprints and  
grime. So too are the microfilm archives, the hundreds of spools of  
Hussein audiotape, the stacks of Hussein videotapes. The Hussein  
calendars that hang in every government office are buried under broken  
glass.

All that remains unmolested is the unfinished work of Hussein's  
propaganda machine.

Still stacked neatly are hundreds of new photo albums and gilded photo  
frames, as empty and hollow as the collapsed regime.
  



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