BAGHDAD, Iraq – The blacksmith paused from his looting of the palace to gape at a door a foot thick, and at the empty, marble-lined safe inside.
"This safe is as big as the room I rent, and I live there with my wife and two children," said Ahmed Hamza, 28. "I thought the rumors were exaggerated, but these people lived in a different world."
This house was owned by Hala Hussein, Saddam's thirtysomething daughter, whereabouts currently unknown. She had two more across the street, several across the river, and even more scattered around the city. And that was just Baghdad.
With the Saddam family driven into hiding, Iraqis have begun to explore its secret world — one they always knew existed in their midst, but whose luxury and debauchery are nonetheless causing shock and anger.
Many of the palaces were bombed, then ransacked by looters, and are now under U.S. military guard. But journalists have been allowed into some of them, and there are so many — dozens in Baghdad and around Iraq — that U.S. forces can't guard them all.
Iraqis always knew the Saddam family lived well, even as it claimed U.N. sanctions were starving its people and denying its children lifesaving medicine. But few realized just how well they lived.
Nor were they much different from other dictatorships. In 1989, when communist regimes were collapsing in Eastern Europe, citizens long subjected to deprivation were outraged to discover how well their leaders lived.
At the time, the Berliner Zeitung newspaper described the homes of ousted East German officials: "Canadian lumber, Italian floor mosaics, West German bathroom tiles ... in grand one-family houses with immense floor space."
"If you have all the resources of a wealthy country at your disposal, basic instincts come forth," said Richard Fairbanks, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Based on visits to several of the houses, Saddam appears to have lived more like a drug lord than a president. Iraq's rulers had more money than taste — and an obsession with guns, cash and women.
Odai Hussein, Saddam's eldest son, had a compound in the corner of the Republican Palace — a city-within-a-city complete with six-lane highways and traffic lights — that included a zoo featuring lions, cheetahs and bear.
Odai's house had reams of pornography off the Internet, boxes of sexual fortifiers, rooms of fine wines and liquors and Cuban cigars with his name on the wrappers.
Nearby, U.S. soldiers are living in a domed house they believe was the residence of Odai's concubines. With a pink-and-white color scheme, it has statuettes of couples in foreplay, couches with fluffy pillows and a swimming pool with a bar.
Across town, a two-story house apparently held one of Odai's weapons stores: boxes of Italian pistols, Soviet-era Kalashnikovs and American-made rifles still wrapped in plastic, as well as antique muskets in presentation cases and dozens of knives and swords, many gold-plated.
Saddam lived the high life as well. While many of his palaces are off-limits, soldiers let journalists into a split-level one-room townhouse in central Baghdad they dubbed "Saddam's love shack." It featured a mirrored bedroom and lamps shaped like women.
Next door, still in their opened packaging, were more than 6,000 Beretta pistols, 650 Sig Sauer pistols, 248 Colt revolvers, 160 Belgian 7.65mm pistols, 12 cases of Sterling submachine guns and four cases of anti-tank missiles.
At another house, whose owner's identity is unclear, soldiers found suitcases that concealed submachine guns with triggers on the handles, and air pistols that fired cyanide pellets.
Visiting Baghdad last week, Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, inspected the gold toilet-paper dispenser and the gold-handled toilet bowl brush in one of Saddam's palaces and mockingly spoke of "the oil-for-palace program" — a reference to the U.N. oil-for-food program that was supposed to provide Iraqis with humanitarian aid.
"It was medieval," said Jim Phillips, an Iraq expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "A parasitic class that ruled over the people, and was much more corrupt than even a lot of the communist regimes which we saw toward the end."
The vast gap between haves and have-nots explains in part the frenzy of looting that swept Baghdad as soon as Saddam was gone. By Saturday there was little left to plunder. Daughter Hala's house had been picked clean and Hamza, the blacksmith, had to settle for four fluorescent light bulbs he removed from their sockets.
Iraqis had long heard rumors about the lifestyles of Iraq's rich, but many believed them to be exaggerations. After all, in the heavily policed secret world they lived in, it wasn't something they could safely gossip about.
"I imagined I would see such things only in my dreams," said Mohammed al-Abousi, 70, who has lived across the street from a riverside palace for 10 years. "Now I can see them right across the street."
Al-Abousi, a retired general in Iraq's army, said he had many indications the family was living well. He saw fancy cars entering and leaving the compound, and on Odai's birthday last June he saw an impressive fireworks show.
"We are hurt by these things," he said. "There are people who can eat anything they want and throw the rest in the river, and there are people who are always hungry."
His biggest grudge was against Saddam's bodyguards for ordering him to stay off his own roof because it looks into the palace grounds.
He took a journalist upstairs to gaze out into the forbidden world.
U.S. Marines based at the palace responded quickly, rushing in and pointing an assault rifle at the journalist's chest.
"You can't go on the roof," barked a Marine who didn't give his name. "We almost took a shot at you."
Al-Abousi just sighed.