Lavish lifestyles on display in Tikrit

Thursday, April 17, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq -- In a biblical landscape of green pastures and adobe villages, Saddam Hussein turned his hometown into a city of ornate palaces, six-lane highways and blue-domed mosques.

Through the centuries, life has changed little for the tribespeople in rich-colored robes who tend sheep, wheat fields and grape orchards on Tikrit's outskirts. But for Saddam's inner circle, it became a place of plush guest houses with marble tables, gold-leaf chairs, imitation Persian rugs and porcelain figurines.

In one guest house, a kettle still sits on the stove. In another are slippers abandoned by a bed with crumpled pink sheets and a radio built into the headboard. Outside are red, pink and white rose bushes, ornamental trees and fenced-off hunting grounds stocked with roaming herds of miniature antelope.

Saddam's family used one elaborate palace near the center of Tikrit. But he was building himself another, even more grandiose base of operations at the edge of the Tigris River. Intricately carved pillars and archways adorn vast, sand-colored buildings next to an artificial lake with pleasure boats.

Inside are marble-lined rooms with crystal chandeliers and arched ceilings hand-painted in swirling floral designs. For his horses, Saddam was building climate-controlled stables with wall-to-wall tiling, glass light fixtures and running water in every stall.

"I cannot believe the priorities," said 1st Lt. Jeffrey Watts, 28, of Atlanta. "Their horses get treated better than their people."

So many Marines have visited the stables that members of Watts' battalion have erected a sign advertising admission for $5 -- or a pack of cigarettes.

Saddam's picture adorns every lamppost and building on the palm-lined road into Tikrit, roughly 100 miles north of Baghdad. On an archway at the entrance to the city, Saddam is depicted on horseback leading his military into battle as helicopters circle overhead.

But there was no battle for Tikrit -- no sizable one, anyway.

"We thought they would make their big stand here. Instead, they have dropped their weapons and they have disappeared," said Capt. Thomas Dunn, 32, a 1st Division intelligence officer from Rhineland, Wis.

Tikrit has mosques, a sports stadium and a 10,000-foot runway in which U.S. bombers have left 16-foot-deep craters. Marines are now filling the holes to make way for helicopters and airplanes bringing in food, water and other supplies.

Some of Tikrit's citizens got their first look inside Saddam's palace Wednesday when they met with Marines about re-establishing civil authority in the city. Cpl. Erik Parisi, 22, an intelligence analyst from Canfield, Ohio, said they were skittish.

"Some of them were still scared to step inside," Parisi said, "for fear he might come back."

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