INSIDE SADDAM HUSSEIN’S PRESIDENTIAL COMPOUND IN TIKRIT, Iraq — The road into Tikrit today is tense, but passable. Arab clans are setting up checkpoints to make sure that Kurds dressed as peshmergas aren’t entering the city to loot. At one checkpoint, Jason, a photographer buddy from Los Angeles I’m traveling with, backed up a little quickly and we got a warning shot. Nothing serious. Once they realized we were press the gunmen smiled and let us through.

Inside Tikrit, at the roundabout where we came under fire yesterday, a group of Arab men were guarding the way. They were angry about possible looting and they were determined to see that what happened in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul didn’t happen here.

Zaid Ibrahim, a man at the scene, was barefoot. He said not five minutes before, a group of Kurds had stolen his car and even his shoes.

“Tell Jalal [Talabani] these are not peshmergas,” said his friend, Adil Ahmed. “They are thieves. If they come here to steal, we will kill them.” Then he smiled warmly, shook my hand and bid me welcome.

Once the Arabs realized we hadn’t come to steal their stuff, they were quite friendly. They were so friendly, in fact, that they brought me over to show me the bodies of two dead peshmergas. (WARNING: Graphic image.) They lay in a ditch where they had died. They would have looked almost peaceful except for the gaping bullet wounds and the blood.

In the distance, past the bodies, a factory of some kind burned fiercely, sending black smoke high into the sky, while the sun tried to creep through the blackness, giving the scene a post-Apocalyptic feel. Bits of glass, dust and metal crunched under our feet as we walked.

While Jason and I were shooting pictures in this Mad Max landscape, the crowd scattered, leaving us alone with the dead peshmergas. The silence was the worst. The city is deserted, and there was no sound of life. Suddenly, we heard a thump-thump and two Apaches Cobras and a Blackhawk Bell Huey chopper began to circle low over us. Jason and I held out our arms and our cameras to show the pilots and gunners we were unarmed journalists. They circled us about seven times or so, getting lower each time. We could feel the rumbling of the choppers’ engines vibrate inside our chests. They were warning us to get the hell out of there and finally, we got the message and split.

Once inside the city, we crossed the Tigris over a bomb-damaged bridge on which Marines in humvees squatted and kept the locals behind a line of concertina wire. We got into the media line and passed through while city residents, waiting to return to their homes after they had fled the American bombardment, looked on plaintively. Later in the afternoon, after the media had passed, the marines would open up the bridge and let people through to return to their homes.

After that, we drove through the mostly empty streets. The few locals we saw on the street were friendly, and waved and said hello, but we’d been advised by other journalists to be careful. Finally, we drove up to the palaces. It’s a surreal feeling to merrily tool around the sprawling Tikrit presidential compound of Saddam Hussein. We’ve explored two small homes that have been picked over by looters or the former residents. Broken glass was all that remained in the first building, but the second was less ransacked.

The tastes of the residents tended toward Louis XIV kitsch, with ornate and brocaded chairs and sofas. While I was in the second palace, I bumped into a couple of kids looting. We all started, jumpy and edgy in these empty cathedrals to Saddam’s power. When they saw I meant no harm, they smiled, said “Hello!” and went on their way. I didn’t try to stop them. One of them was munching on Sumer crackers lifted from the kitchen. Outside we could see the detritus of the U.S. military: wrappers from MREs.

One of the major palaces on the grounds was heavily damaged in bombing. The upstairs was demolished by several bombs and had collapsed into the lower floors. But we encountered incongruities in the destruction. A mosaic running up the wall of a demolished, curving marble staircase seemed untouched. A wall ornamented with polished cedar and inlaid mother of pearl panels was untouched while on the other side of the wall the room was reduced to ash and rubble.

This palace was abandoned before the war even started. There wasn’t a trace of furniture in the rooms that were mostly undamaged — no tracks in the dust left by dragged furniture, either.

We’ve hooked up for the night with the Marines’ 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, based in front of the bombed palace. I let them call home on my satellite phone and they hooked us up with a case of MREs, a couple of blankets and some water. They were hungry for news from the United States, since they’re just as cut off as the people of Kirkuk were before the peshmergas entered that city. They don’t know anything about what’s going on except that Tikrit is mostly secured, except for some minor looting in the south part of the city, which is still being bombed. At the moment, as if to emphasize the point, a huge boom filled the air. We try to fill them in on the news as best as possible, but they want to know about Syria. So do I.

Cpl. Bryon M. Hightower offered us an AK-47 but I refused. I did let him give me a knife, since he was concerned that Jason and I had no protection. We’re going to camp out here tonight, either in one of these abandoned palaces or tucked up behind their trucks and sleep in the back of the pickup that Jason rented. For tonight, we’re unofficially embedded with the the 1st LAR. It’s probably one of the safest places in the country at the moment.

Note: Isaac Taylor wrote in to say the missile we saw was an SA-2, a surface-to-air missile, not a surface-to-surface missile as I mistakenly thought. Thanks for the correction, Isaac!

4 Comments on “Inside Saddam’s palace(s)”

  1. Nel palazzo di Saddam

    Christopher Allbritton pubblica il suo reportage su una Tikrit spettrale. E visita il palazzo presidenziale di Saddam. Da cui i mobili sono stati portati via prima della guerra, e per i saccheggiatori sono rimasti i biscotti in cucina….

  2. Nel palazzo di Saddam

    Christopher Allbritton pubblica il suo reportage su una Tikrit spettrale. E visita il palazzo presidenziale di Saddam. Da cui i mobili sono stati portati via prima della guerra, e per i saccheggiatori sono rimasti i biscotti in cucina….