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thedrifter
04-19-03, 01:51 PM
In Hometown, Hussein's Glory Is Quickly Gone
By DEXTER FILKINS


IKRIT, Iraq, April 14 The breeze off the Tigris blew through the empty halls of President Saddam Hussein's grandest palace today, its once fearsome opulence reduced, it seemed, to the most crushing sort of banality.

Here on the bookshelf, for instance, were "The Collected Works of Saddam Hussein," Volumes I through X, barely cracked. In the next room was a tablet of paper, imposing in its plainness, labeled simply "The President." Then, in the bathroom, were signs of a hurried exit: a cabinet door open, a crumpled towel on the floor, a pair of men's underwear still hanging on the rack.

The end came today for the last and most formidable redoubt of Saddam Hussein's reign, as thousands of American marines poured into his hometown after a supposed collection of his staunchest bitter-enders finally gave up or ran away.

There was a fight, to be sure; it took most of Sunday and most of the night. But when daylight came and marines began to move, the fierce resistance anticipated here gave way to empty streets. Mr. Hussein's men were gone.

As night fell, the American officers leading the battle treated themselves to a view of the Tigris and the green flatlands beyond it, setting up their command post amid the mansions and monuments and artificial lakes that Mr. Hussein had presumably enjoyed only weeks before.

"Wow, this looks like Las Vegas," Capt. Tyrone Franklin said as he stared out on the panoramic grounds.

Instead of a big fight, the marines found a city inextricably bound up with Mr. Hussein: his vanity, his ambition, his ability to reward and to punish. Today the people of Tikrit took their first steps into the new world without the man who had loomed over them for so long.

The marines spent much of the day finishing off their enemies and wondering where the rest of them had gone.

It was still early, and the looters had not yet come. Ahmed Farhan, a 22-year-old student, wandered about the grounds of Mr. Hussein's palace, looking like a country boy in the city for the first time.

His eyes were wide and his mouth was agape as he took in the breathtaking extravagance that Mr. Hussein had lavished on the Tikrit Presidential Palace: two miles of riverfront property and perhaps 90 buildings in all, including homes, offices, hotels and servant quarters. There were lakes, and the lakes had swans. Ducks and rare birds glided by on the breeze.

"All my life I have dreamed of this palace," Mr. Farhan said. "We were never allowed to see it."

As he walked through the grounds, Mr. Farhan said he was surprised that any one man could want so much. So many houses? So many bedrooms?

Later in the day, when the looters came, they carried away all the things that Mr. Hussein had purchased: the carpets and stoves, the paintings and gilded chairs.

Mr. Farhan said he was not much interested in taking such things. But the fighting in the last two days left most of shops closed, and when he spotted an Arabic-language romance novel, with a picture of a pouting brunette on the cover, Mr. Farhan picked it up. His shortwave radio needed some batteries, and Mr. Farhan pocketed a pack of double A's.

"I would like to have the houses, too, but only one," he said, surveying the grounds before him. "I don't know anyone could lead such a life."

Outside the palace, the streets of Tikrit were given over to American marines. Before venturing into the city, the Americans dropped leaflets urging the residents to stay inside, advising them that anyone out would be presumed to be an enemy.

The Iraqi Army seemed to have read the leaflets too. Just two days ago, marine officers estimated that there were 2,500 Iraqi soldiers in the city, including some senior members of the Republican Guard. Following a pattern that began weeks ago in other Iraqi cities, the marines fought a few sharp engagements and then watched their enemies vanish.

"There wasn't a lot of resistance," Maj. Chris Snyder said. "We're not sure where they all went."

A clue of sorts appeared outside the palace itself. Three local men approached and introduced themselves. They were dressed in street clothes. They had spent the last two nights in the city and agreed that the fighting had been minimal. When asked what they did for a living, they answered in unison.

"We're in the Republican Guard," the three men said.

Indeed, the three men, who share tribal bonds with Mr. Hussein, said they had fought for many years in the once vaunted army, in Kuwait and elsewhere. When the American invasion began they were stationed in a place called Radwaniya, near Baghdad, and they found the American bombings so intense that they retreated home to Tikrit.

They were still soldiers, but when they heard that the Americans were coming this way, they took off their uniforms for good.

"We're not cowards," said Borhan Abdul Karim, within earshot of an American soldier. "But there's no point to fighting when the Americans have this aviation, and there is no way we can win. We would just be killed."

The other two men nodded in agreement. Were there other Republican Guard soldiers wandering the streets of Tikrit?

"Oh yes," Mr. Karim said. "Hundreds."

The three men watched as American armored vehicles flooded through the grandiose archway that marks the entrance to town. One of them, Sabah Karim, began to shake his head. He said he was thinking about the Iraqi president, and his thoughts were tangled.

On one hand, he said, Mr. Hussein was always good to the local people. Every year, Mr. Karim said, the president would throw open the palace gates to Republican Guard soldiers and allow them to fish in his stocked artificial lake. Then again, Mr. Karim said, it is also true that ordinary Iraqis never enjoyed the fruits of the country's petroleum wealth.

After a time, Mr. Karim seemed to hit upon a conclusion.

"He is the only Arab leader who fired missiles at Israel," Mr. Karim said, referring to the Scud missiles launched by Mr. Hussein at Israel during the Persian Gulf war of 1991. "No other Arab leader has done that, even if the price was high. So for that reason, yes, Saddam Hussein was a great man."

As the day wore on, more and more residents slipped past the marine roadblocks to loot the palaces. By the late afternoon, much of the most valuable items, like television sets and stoves, had been lifted from Mr. Hussein's grounds.

One man, Maaruf Hussein, was hard at work loading his car. He was rummaging around one of the official meeting rooms that dotted the grounds of the Tikrit Presidential Palace. Inside there were cavernous ceilings, gold-plated chandeliers and dining tables long enough to seat 100 people.

Mr. Hussein had come to furnish his house. Into his battered taxi he had already loaded a half-dozen Persian carpets and several boxes of lamps and fixtures. His prize, though, was a refrigerator, which he had strapped to the roof of his car.

"I never had a refrigerator, and today I took one," Mr. Hussein said. "I'm going to put cold water in it for my wife. Maybe I will take the day off tomorrow."

Mr. Hussein said he would not allow himself to be burdened by guilt for taking the Iraqi president's belongings.

"Nobody likes to steal, and everyone would like to live in a wealthy country," Mr. Hussein said. "But he never made us feel like were part of the country."

Which brought Mr. Hussein around to the carpets he had put on top of his car.

"I am going to put them down in my house," he said, "and whenever someone comes and walks on them, I will tell them that these came from Saddam Hussein's palace."

Sempers,

Roger