Originally created 12/15/03

Saddam's long fall: From ostentatious palaces to a hole in the ground



BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A man who lived in sprawling palaces was pulled from a hole in the dirt. A man who challenged the greatest armies in the world was arrested without firing a shot. A man who embezzled billions of dollars and put his image on every Iraqi bank note was found with a single suitcase of cash - bearing the face of an American, Benjamin Franklin.

The image that emerged Sunday of Saddam Hussein in captivity contrasted in almost every way to the life of one of the world's most despised dictators.

"He was subservient and broken," said Iraqi leader Mouwafak al-Rabii, who saw Saddam in detention. "Saddam looked like a thug."

It was quite a fall for the self-proclaimed "builder of modern Iraq."

During Saddam's reign, his picture graced streets and offices in a hundred different guises, from modern-day field marshal to medieval Arab warrior on horseback. His countenance, with a solemn but pleased expression, was printed on Iraqi dinars of every denomination.

He moved between dozens of palaces scattered across Iraq - sprawling, grandiose complexes with houses for his children, his bodyguards, his aides and his prostitutes, as well as hospitals, gymnasiums and zoos. Two of the palaces were topped with 10-foot busts of Saddam in a tropical helmet.

When the palaces weren't enough, he rebuilt the ancient city of Babylon, ordering his name inscribed on the stones alongside those of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.

He spent lavishly on the country as well. During a 1970s oil boom, Saddam headed an economic planning council that oversaw the building of vast industrial plants, huge housing projects, eight-lane highways, bridges, airports, universities and communication grids.

Millions of Iraqis were able for the first time in their lives to wear designer clothing and vacation in London, Madrid or Paris. Others started tasting imported foods and driving Japanese, German or French cars - all at government subsidized prices.

Baghdad became a hub for Arab writers and artists who gathered at annual festivals. An Iraq-based foreign development fund provided economic aid to poor nations in Africa. Tens of thousands of Iraqi students were sent West on state scholarships.

"Saddam seemed to be building an empire, and only waiting to declare himself its emperor," Iraqi economist Ghanim Hamdoun said from London.

His opulence was rivaled only by his brutality. Conservative estimates say he had 300,000 people executed; some say the number is over 1 million. Once, Saddam had a cameraman film him as he walked along a row of executed opponents, putting a final bullet into each one's head.

In 1988, when Kurds in northern Iraq were pushing for autonomy, he bombed and shelled the town of Halabja with cyanide gas. At least 5,000 men, women and children died.

Saddam built a huge army, with nearly 1 million soldiers at the start of the 1991 Gulf War. He went to war with neighboring Iran in 1980, fighting for eight years before agreeing to a cease-fire. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait, and seemed surprised when a U.S.-led coalition drove him out. He ordered his scientists to build a nuclear bomb.

But after a lifetime of successful brinksmanship, he went too far in a final dare to the United States. When President George W. Bush told him to resign or face an invasion, Saddam retorted that the Americans would face a bloodbath.

Less than a month later, the Americans were in his main palace, and Saddam was in hiding.

Few details emerged Sunday about his whereabouts in the months that followed. But details of his capture indicated that Saddam had taken a long, hard fall.

U.S. soldiers found him hidden in a hole with nothing more than a pistol on his lap. The adobe house above him was rudimentary at best, with a single bed and one chair. A soldier who participated in the raid said it "smelled really bad."

"You could just about see the palaces from there," said Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the division that conducted the raid. "It's rather ironic that he was in a hole in the ground across from those great palaces he built."

Saddam's hair was long and matted, and he wore an unkempt salt-and-pepper beard. He appeared bewildered but put up no resistance as the Americans fished him out of the hole and put him on a helicopter to take him to detention at an undisclosed location.

Those who met with him said he bore little resemblance to the man who remade modern Iraq. Four members of the Governing Council found him sitting on a bed in a white gown and dark jacket. For the first time, Iraq's new leaders faced down their predecessor.

"We told him, 'Had we been in your place, you would have cut us to pieces,"' al-Rabii said. He said the politicians questioned Saddam about his atrocities, and the former leader responded with rambling, confused answers.

"Saddam appeared in his true face, using bad language and insults," he said. "When I left the room - and I was the last to leave - I wanted to punch him in the face to cool myself down."

And for the Iraqi people, who stared in awe at the televised images of Saddam in his disheveled state while an American medic probed his mouth, there was little nobility left of Iraq's great builder.

"For the last 35 years Saddam Hussein presented himself as a lion against the Americans and the West," said Laad Hamadi, a civil engineer. "And now, today, they found him like a mouse."

Niko Price is correspondent-at-large for The Associated Press. AP writer Salah Nasrawi contributed to this report from Cairo.