Most Iraqis lived frugally, especially during the past 12 years of U.N. sanctions. But Saddam Hussein, his family and close associates lived like kings. In one compound, U.S. soldiers have discovered stacks of American currency, totaling more than $650 million. Correspondent Laurie Kassman visited one of the vast palace compounds.
Pass through the massive concrete and iron gates, and leave behind the dusty crowded streets of Baghdad. Ahead stretches a wide avenue that passes in front of large office buildings, expansive parks, sumptuous villas surrounded by rose gardens and neatly trimmed hedges.
It looks like a planned community for the wealthy. It is the world of Saddam Hussein's family and loyal associates.
For U.S. Captain Edward Ballanco, it is a world of excess and hidden treasures. "One of our guys was looking for a chainsaw in a shed, and moved a concrete stone, and pulled out a metal case, and there were brand new $100 bills," he said. "And, each one [case] had $4 million in it. And then we found it, and he uncovered one stone and another stone and on and on and on."
In all, the soldiers have found more than $650 million. The money has been airlifted to Kuwait for safekeeping.
The compound extends over about 12 square kilometers. Its main feature is an expansive white stone building set behind an iron gate and topped with three seven-meter-high busts of Saddam Hussein, wearing the helmet of the legendary warrior* Salahudin.
Passing under a stone archway that dissects an expansive park is another complex of a dozen buildings the soldiers believe was the playground of Saddam's much-feared son Uday.
A cruise missile destroyed much of the villa, which Captain Ballanco said the U.S. military believes was used by Uday. "We found photo albums in there," he said. "He had Cuban cigars that were handcrafted for him with a little label around it that said Havana, Cuba, handcrafted for Uday Saddam Hussein. There were guest book registries who had visited the place. We found about 40 pairs of Oakley sun glasses, at least the cases for them. We found pictures of cars he had ordered off the Internet."
He said the soldiers who entered it after the war found stockpiles of drugs, including AZT, which is used to battle the AIDS disease, heroin and marijuana. Another building housed a dental clinic.
A bunker was still smoldering, one of many that dotted the complex.
U.S. soldiers exploring the larger villa nearby uncovered tunnels that led to the nearby Tigris River. Some other tunnels have yet to be explored.
Another house in the compound is believed to have been used by Saddam Hussein's uncle, Ali Hassan Maguid, with his children. Photos of him with his children sit on the mantle behind a downstairs fireplace.
He was known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in the gas attack on Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s. He was put in charge of defending the south of Iraq during the war.
On the second floor, reached by a sweeping marble staircase, women's clothes were strewn around a small dressing area, and jewelry cases ripped open, as if the person who lived there had left in a hurry. American soldiers were busy packing them up and carrying them off to a large truck outside.
In another villa, surrounded by neatly trimmed hedges, U.S. soldiers have pushed aside the Oriental carpets and laid out their camping gear on the living room's marble floors.
Army officer Tim Cattel just shakes his head. "It's just amazing. I mean, I couldn't believe how much money they actually poured into this place," he said. "It was a reality check just seeing the people, how they lived, and how Saddam and his family took all the money, and made life so much better for their family."
Over his shoulder, a portrait of Uday on horseback dominates a gilded mirror frame.
Captain Ballanco said the compound also contained housing for army officers and a stash of weapons. "We're still inventorying them, but thousands and thousands of weapons. RPGs, AK-47s, grenades. These are MP-5s made by HK of Germany, thousands-and-thousands of AK-47s," he explained. "If I had to guess, I'd say about 80,000 AK-47s, just right in this area, within two square miles."
Captain Ballanco said the drugs and weapons have been removed. The clothes, toys, furniture and other items are being shipped to a central warehouse, where they will be sorted and distributed to the needy.
* - corrected 4/21/03