A peek at Baghdad's homes of the rich and infamous

The greed of Hussein's cronies is on display in an exclusive, leafy neighborhood along the Tigris River.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Did the chubby-cheeked girl in the photo know why she had to leave her home so fast the other day? Did she know where she was going? Did she know that the man in so many other photos around her house was Ali Hassan al Majid, known as "Chemical Ali," one of the most wanted men on US lists of Iraqi leaders?

Her portrait still hung on her bedroom wall Saturday, a wide-eyed little princess in a pinafore dress. Her clothes were still in a white cupboard by her bed.

But her toys and dolls were being stuffed into large plastic bags by US Special Forces soldiers who were cleaning her home out so that they could install their new headquarters there.

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"At first we felt kind of bad taking out kids' toys," said one of the soldiers, who declined to give his name. "We are all fathers, and I wouldn't want anyone to do that to my kids' toys. But I'm not a member of a regime that oppressed its people."

The seven-bedroom mansion whose walls were decorated with so many photos of Hassan al-Majid was relatively modest by the standards of his neighbors in the Republican Palace compound where Saddam Hussein's elite made their homes.

A few hundred yards away stand the ruins of the three-story brick house where Saddam's elder son, Uday, lived, say Special Forces troops who ransacked it last week searching for clues about its owner. They found heroin, pornography, guns, and albums of photographs of fast cars - all the trappings of the drug-baron lifestyle for which Uday Hussein was notorious.

Uday, Hassan al-Majid, and other close relatives and aides to Saddam held sway until their downfall from a vast walled compound sitting on four square miles of the choicest real estate in Baghdad, along the western bank of the Tigris River.

It was a tree-lined haven of peace and quiet - and security - that could have been a million miles from the chaotic and suffering city whose heart it dominates.

In this neighborhood, Jay Garner, head of the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq, set up his office on Monday. He has not said what he plans to do with the four heads of Saddam Hussein, each 25 feet tall, that sit stop the roof of his new office.

But as he sets about rebuilding this exhausted and shattered country, Mr. Garner will doubtless find a use for the more than $600 million in cash that US soldiers found by chance the other evening, as one of them rooted around an abandoned building in the compound in search of a chainsaw.

The wonder of such finds is not just that Iraq's last rulers could have been so grotesquely greedy amid such poverty. It is that they should have spent their fabulous wealth on such false and tacky opulence.

In these marble-lined homes, the gaudily decorated furniture is cheaply and badly made.

"You've got a million-dollar palace and a hundred-dollar bed in the bedroom," commented Capt. Ed Ballanco, an officer who has set up his command post in what he thinks was once Uday's harem.

"My wife wouldn't put stuff like this in our place."

In the wreckage of Uday's home a few hundred yards away, badly damaged by US missiles, visitors find an eclectic collection of remnants from a mysterious life: In one room a scuba mask and horse-riding helmet lie beside a badminton shuttlecock. In another, a dental chair sits amid a collection of wicker baskets.

Elsewhere boxes of Royal Jelly and other alternative medicines lie strewn about, along with recipes for flour tortillas and vegetable-bean enchiladas taken from the Internet.

Special Forces troops who searched the place say they found drugs, syringes, vials of AZT - used to retard the effects of AIDS - and pornographic photos.

The walls of Uday's exercise room were plastered with pictures of Western lingerie models, printed from Internet sites, along with photographs of President Bush's two daughters.

More disturbingly, US soldiers say they found a building nearby containing a bedchamber with one glass wall and a viewing gallery equipped with chairs for voyeurs.

One day, perhaps, the Republican Palace compound will be opened to the Iraqi public so that ordinary citizens may see exactly how they were defrauded even as they were repressed. For the time being, however, the great domed archway that leads into the area is blocked by razor-wire, barring entry to all but members of the new government.

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