BAGHDAD, Iraq—They had huge caches of French cognac and designer guns, sky-high stacks of $100 bills and a curious collection of drugs. They had an Arabian Nights clubhouse complete with crude nude paintings, gold tea sets and children's playgrounds on palm tree-studded green lawns planted over a secret tunnel to the Tigris River.
They built it all around the Republican Palace, an imposing edifice that is topped by four 25-foot-tall busts of Saddam Hussein peering from beneath an Arab warrior's helmet.
Although Saddam's inner circle escaped the cruise missiles, smart bombs and Special Forces, U.S. soldiers encamped in his 4-square-mile inner sanctum have uncovered what amounts to an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous."
Near the palace is a 6-foot-tall pen with two cheetahs and a half-dozen baby lions. Inside houses there are mind-boggling amounts of liquor and wine, overstuffed furniture, crystal chandeliers and cheap European knockoffs.
"It's just amazing. I mean I couldn't believe how much money they actually poured into this place," said Army Sgt. Tim Cattel of Ohio.
His unit was bivouacking in a villa beneath a crude oil painting of Odai Hussein, Saddam's eldest son, leading a tiger on a leash with his parents looking on and beaming. Boxes of military rations were stacked beside it.
"It's pretty bad," Cattel said, decrying the taste of the decorations. "I wouldn't hang this stuff in my home."
American soldiers also squat in a home they say was built for Saddam's wife, Sajida, with marble floors, crystal chandeliers and a spiral staircase. One of about 50 buildings scattered around the property—many referred to as palaces—it has a lush, overgrown garden and now-rolled Persian carpets that look like they had never been trod upon. The troops wonder whether the president's wife ever stayed here.
On a recent visit, soldiers moved faux French chairs and a dining room table from another house for an armor company headquarters—and some war booty they did not know whether they would be allowed to take home: ceremonial velvet boxes found in another home there. Inside the boxes were the cream of an arsenal of thousands of weapons: a collector's edition nickel-plated Dragunov sniper rifle and a gold-plated Kalashnikov rifle.
For years, the compound was off-limits to outsiders and ordinary Iraqis, leaving Baghdadis to whisper that their president lived in a secret network of modest safehouses around the city as he scrambled to elude assassination.
But, in a surreal contrast to Saddam's stern socialist-style Baath Party ideology, the place where Saddam and his inner circle sometimes lived looked like a South Florida-style gated community built for the nouveau riche.
"It's an odd place," said Capt. Jeff Powell of Britt, Iowa. "We came all the way through Iraq, and (the Iraqis) live like in the 19th century—no electricity and running water—and then you come here, and we find armored Mercedes and a 34-foot boat, all of these houses. It's amazing. And pitiful. And ostentatious. How do you live in a country with such a megalomaniac in charge?"
Up a smooth paved road is an onion-dome topped clubhouse with a 40-yard swimming pool, sunken bar and barbecues on wide green lawns. An armored unit turned it into a command center by removing a king-size canopied bed that was curiously planted in the middle of the living room, Army Capt. Edward Ballanco said.
But the troops left 1950s vintage oil paintings of nude women hanging on a wall not far from intricate brass inlays and peppermint pink furniture. No one here knows what it was all about, but some troops now call it Concubine House.
"It's pretty tacky," Ballanco said of the decor.
Troops haven't helped it much by draping captured war booty around the place.
"I know," he said sheepishly, showing off a peppermint pink bedroom where his soldiers had draped enemy assault rifles and bayonets over an armoire. "We look like Sandinista arms dealers here," referring to members of the left-wing Nicaraguan party.
Another palace was torn apart by a cruise missile because the Pentagon believed it belonged to Odai. Tour the wreckage and you can still see a Jacuzzi fitted with a gold swan-necked faucet, a private gymnasium and a two-sink beauty salon.
Soldiers carted away for safekeeping fine champagnes, aged scotch and Bordeaux wines but left behind several gilded copies of the alcohol-banning Quran.
Soldiers say they also removed a curious cache: 10 cases of the HIV treatment drug AZT plus an HIV test kit. They left hundreds of syringes that were strewn around the palace along with case after case of a Chinese potency drug, two wheelchairs, a dialysis machine and scuba diving suits.
Also amid the rubble of Odai's residence: elegant embossed calling cards, presidential stationery and blank formal invitations, with his name and the Iraqi national emblem engraved on them.
Another mansion up the road looked lived in, and the photos on the walls and family albums indicate that it must have belonged to Ali Hassan Majid al Tikriti, also known as Chemical Ali.
It had a small merry-go-round in the yard and bathrooms outfitted with electric hand dryers, well-used Persian carpets, knickknacks, couches and overstuffed arm chairs.
Upstairs, a children's room hid pint-size suits and little girl's dresses in the closets, an antique doll lamp and Pokemon toys, suggesting the family fled in a hurry.
"If you guys see him around, tell him his stuff is in a warehouse across the street," cracked a commando as he emptied the contents into a 2.5-ton truck. Majid reportedly was killed in coalition bombing in Basra on April 5.
Among some curious finds were a snapshot of a small boy undergoing circumcision and a videotape titled "The Secrets of the Freemason Society."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+PALACE