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Posted January 22, 2007
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Eric Gaillard/Reuters

A French villa bought for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s is coated with graffiti. A scrawl near a bearded face reads, "The Arab Father Christmas."



For Sale: Riviera Fixer-Upper

(Would-Be Tenant Lost Job)



GRASSE, France — Tucked in the hills outside this small southern French town, high among the terraced olive groves, sits a peaceful stone Mediterranean villa once acquired for the family of Saddam Hussein.

Today, the villa is abandoned: its fish pond overgrown with reeds, its rooms ransacked, its walls scrawled with graffiti and colorful murals of the kind once seen on New York City subway cars.

“The Arab Father Christmas,” reads one of the spray-painted slogans left behind by a gang of squatters who briefly took over the property after its Iraqi caretakers abandoned it in the wake of the Iraq war.

The French Riviera has long been a favorite playland for dodgy characters of all stripes. Jean-Claude Duvalier moved here in 1986 after being chased out of Haiti. Mobutu Sese Seko, the deposed dictator of Zaire, also had a home here. But none can compare with the notoriety of Iraq’s former first family.

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The New York Times

Neighbors say the Iraqi government bought the Grasse house in the 1980s from Count Alexandre de Marenches, who has since died but was director of France’s foreign intelligence service when Mr. Hussein visited southern France in 1975, with Jacques Chirac, then the prime minister.

Mr. Hussein’s half brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, who was Iraq’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva at about the same time but who most notably served as chief of the fearsome Iraqi intelligence service, picked out another property. That villa, on the Corniche of Earthly Paradise overlooking the sea above Cannes, is also abandoned and in disrepair, its shutters shattered, its grounds overgrown.

The two hideaways were among the Iraqi assets later frozen under United Nations resolution 1483 immediately after the American-led invasion in 2003. The secluded property in Grasse — perfume capital of the world — soon became the redoubt of squatters who, judging from the paintings and debris, spent much of their time smoking marijuana and vandalizing the premises. “I’m sitting with Satan,” one graffiti scrawl reads.

The police chased the squatters away years ago, and mice are the only intruders now, giving the empty rooms a forlorn, haunted air. The properties are finally being unfrozen and transferred back to Iraqi control. Mr. Hussein and Mr. Tikriti, meanwhile, have been hanged.

“Contacts are taking place directly between the Iraqi and French governments,” said an official at the Iraqi Embassy in Paris, adding that it had taken some time to find the relevant documents in Iraqi archives. He said the new Iraqi government expected to take control of the properties soon. It intends to keep the house in Cannes but sell the one in Grasse, he said.

No wonder. The sheet-metal gates leading into the walled property are unlocked and both the gatehouse and main building are gutted. The 25-foot swimming pool is filled with a slimy compost of fallen leaves.

“It’s a disgrace, with a capital D,” said the caretaker at a nearby property still owned by the Marenches family.

The Iraqis evidently left little of value in the eight-bedroom, five-bathroom house. One of the main bedrooms has satin-covered shelves in its closets, another has velveteen-covered shelves, some labeled “walking shoes” and others “town shoes,” suggesting that the owner had many shoes and relied on someone else to put them away.

There are a few sofas, some beds and two armchairs — all tumbled and torn by the squatters. A safe, once concealed behind a wall, is open and empty, a gaping hole blowtorched into its thick steel door. A few magazines dated 1988 suggest that the house was not used much by the Iraqis after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when United Nations sanctions put a crimp on the family’s travel abroad.

There are few other clues to what the Iraqis did in the house besides broken telephones, a smashed television set, a damaged stove and dishwasher and an instruction pamphlet for ballistic safety goggles together with a half-dozen gun targets, the black human silhouettes unblemished by bullet holes.

Saddam Hussein never even visited the villa, French and Iraqi authorities say. Some accounts suggest that his son Uday did while he was temporarily banished from Iraq for killing his father’s personal valet and food taster at a party in honor of Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

“They never bothered us,” said an elderly woman in a brown coat and cameo brooch, walking outside a neighboring house. “We were more worried about the squatters setting the place on fire.” Ariane Bernard contributed reporting from Paris.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Monday, January 22, 2007.

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