BAGHDAD, Iraq—Saddam Hussein had fallen, and the people of Iraq had access to anything in his opulent home—furniture, food, water and gold. But when looters arrived at Saddam's door, many wanted only one thing—one of his cars.
U.S. troops manning Saddam's main palace complex said they have had to begin destroying Saddam's cars because so many people have tried to take them. They fear that the cars could be used as suicide bombs or to create dangerous roadblocks.
Destroying the cars, some of them classic American creations, has proven more painful for the American troops than for the people who wanted to take them.
Saddam's main palace complex is near the Tigris River on the city's west side. When soldiers arrived, they found two garages with about 60 cars. Among them: a 1917 Mercedes, a 1930s Packard, a V8 Woody, a 1970s Cadillac Fleetwood and a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.
Although the looters had never been in the complex, they "went straight for the garage," said Army E5 Sgt. Quincy Oree, 26, of Columbia, S.C. "They knew exactly where they were."
The looters got away with about 20 vehicles, Oree said.
Officials believe that some of the cars belonged to former Iraqi leaders, while Saddam purchased others as a hobby. Besides cars, the garages held golf carts and gasoline-powered buggies that were used perhaps to ride through the complex.
When the troops arrived at the complex a week ago, many of the cars had been set up as road blockades inside the complex, military personnel said.
Saddam is not the first Arab leader to collect cars. Jordan's King Hussein had an extensive car collection that became the basis of that country's auto museum when he died in 1999.
But King Hussein drove many of his cars extensively, while the troops said Saddam's cars had not seen much use. Nearly all had fewer than 1,000 miles on them; none had much gas; and all had a key in the ignition. Many had dust on the outside, but inside, the cars were immaculate, Oree said.
Some of the looters came in, grabbed the keys and left, returning later for the car, said Army Sgt. Paul Harris, 25, of Austin, Texas.
"Men in ratty clothes would come to the gate and say `I am here to pick up my Mercedes,' " Harris said. "They would wave the key at us."
One man tried to drive a Rolls Royce out of the complex, but it ran out of gas. That prompted the man to grab a sheet, wrap it around the bumper and try to pull it out. He failed.
Most often, the troops said, residents approach their blockade and ask for a car. The cars are requested more than computers, televisions, telephones, food and water, Oree said.
Earlier this week, Army E4 Spc. Brad Young, 24, of Clinton, Utah, was told to destroy the Bel Air. He ran over it with a tank. He said it took about five seconds.
His platoon understood that he had a job to do, but that did not make watching any easier.
"I love cars. It was so hard to see a Bel Air destroyed," said Army Pfc. Raul Carbajal, 20, of Chicago. "It was painful."
Once the cars are destroyed, their shells are moved to openings to the complex and used as blockades. Already, a smoldering Mercedes and a British cab are blocking one entrance.
The cars are one of the few things the U.S. troops are destroying. They have said they are trying to keep as many things as possible intact to hand over to the new regime, and they'll do the same with the leftover cars.
"We'll take them back if they don't want them," Carbajal said. "Nobody should destroy American classics."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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