LATimes' entry in the 'tacky-ruling-elite' sweepstakes
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
All that remains unmolested is the unfinished work of Hussein's
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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