TIKRIT, Iraq—The U.S. Marines came knocking at the 30-foot-high mahogany doors of Saddam Hussein's presidential palace here on Monday—and they knocked loudly, with a rocket-propelled grenade.
The Marines found nobody at home, not in the main palace nor in any of the dozens of luxurious guest residences. Nobody was in the elegant entertainment halls, the ballroom, the billiard rooms, the stables, the greenhouses or the splendid quarters of the Special Republican Guards.
The main buildings of the palace are opulent to the point of wretched excess. Think Julius Caesar meets Donald Trump, with a healthy dose of Liberace.
"Quite a bit different than the White House, eh?" said Marine Maj. Chris Snyder of Quantico, Va.
The Farouq Palace is spread across hundreds of manicured acres bordering the Tigris River here in Saddam's hometown. It was the last of his presidential palaces to come under coalition control as Marines fully occupied Tikrit on Monday morning.
The troops met with very light resistance, they said, despite fears that Baath Party loyalists and suicide squads would stage a last stand here.
U.S. air and artillery strikes had already collapsed several of the palace's soaring rotundas and gymnasium-sized ballrooms, and all the windows had been shattered. Marine sentries stood guard.
At other Saddam palaces, especially the one in nearby Mosul, looters stripped the place bare in a matter of hours. They chipped up the Argentine marble floor tiles, ripped out the teak banisters and hauled off the gold-handled toilets. Switchplates, toilet brushes, even the potted palm bushes disappeared.
The Tikrit palace complex consisted of two massive palaces, several smaller ones, marble-walled guesthouses and riverside mansions.
The northern palace contained no furniture or furnishing. No rugs, paintings or kitchen equipment. It was either emptied out as the war began or was never re-furnished after its renovation in 1999.
The southern palace and smaller guest houses, however, were lavishly furnished.
Samirah Khider Swadi used to mop the floors of the palace, and on Monday afternoon she was hauling off a stove, a television, some Persian carpets, and piles of sheets embroidered with "SH" in gold.
"They treated me like a slave and these are things that belong to all of us in Iraq," Swadi said angrily, sitting amid her booty while waiting for her husband to show up with a truck. "Saddam's relatives and his cuckolds all drive Mercedes and limousines, and I haven't had a stove for the last 13 years.
"My children even slaved for them inside the palace. The kids of Baath Party officials spit on my kids. They all acted like little princes."
The palace's power and water were cut off, so the Volkswagen-sized chandeliers and gold-doored elevators were not working.
The very best craftsmen from all over the Middle East were brought in to work on the palace, and the stone carving, marble work and mother-of-pearl inlays are worthy of a museum—even when covered with dust and surrounded by rubble.
In one huge ballroom, an Arabic verse was delicately inscribed into a sandstone tablet. The verse read: "O God, let me rule my people in a just way."
Grand staircases of marble curved upward toward domed roofs with multicolored carved paneling. The artwork , however, was poor, the stuff of second-hand street markets in New York, and the furniture in sitting rooms and bedrooms was poorly made imitations of 18th century European furniture. Mass-produced Chinese vases stood everywhere on sideboards and shelves.
"Imagine one individual living like this while across the street there are mud huts with no running water," said Patrick Llamas, 32, a gunnery sergeant from San Jose, Calif. "This is just too incredible."
Llamas led the platoon that was the first to enter the most ornate part of the palace. They blasted the door, then approached with what the Marines call CQCT—close quarter combat tactics. They expected to encounter suicide squads of hard-core Saddam loyalists, but they never saw a soul.
They did find a vast network of underground tunnels, armories and emergency living quarters for Saddam's Special Republican Guards.
"Mini-cities," Llamas called them.
In one large cache the troops found anti-aircraft artillery and several Russian-made SAM missiles. Navy SEAL teams were still exploring the tunnel complex on Monday evening.
One side of the palace is entered through a 60-foot-high triumphal arch, with statues of a saber-waving Saddam mounted atop either side. A broad, mile-long avenue leads past feathery pines, baby junipers and rose gardens.
The roses were in full bloom Monday, and at least one battle-weary Marine had stopped to smell them.
"Amid all this hell," he said, holding up a pink rose, "I wanted to have a little bit of beauty."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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