It was curiosity, insisted Ahmed Mohsen, that prompted him to risk getting shot climbing over the limestone walls of the Republican Palace today.

The better part of a U.S. infantry battalion, with M1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, was guarding the subdivision-sized palace grounds abutting the Tigris River. But Mohsen, a bedraggled farmer, wanted a glimpse of Saddam Hussein's largest palace and Iraq's official seat of government, a building he figured would be opulent beyond his imagination.

He was soon rewarded with an inspection of a small outbuilding containing the office of Hussein's private secretary, with its competition-grade billiards table, gold-inlaid doors and marble floors.

"We live in mud houses. We don't have water. We drink from a well," Mohsen, 30, said with a look of disbelief. "Our lives are terrible, and he lives like this?"

He surveyed the two-story structure again and sighed. "This is our fortune," he said. "He spent it like this?"

Two days after Hussein's rule collapsed in the capital, scores of Baghdadis set out today in search of the places symbolizing the evil and grandeur that marked his three-decade rule. Many went to jails and security installations, where they sought to locate relatives snatched years ago by the secret police. Others barged into government ministries, where they helped themselves to typewriters, chairs, air conditioners, rugs and anything else that was not bolted down or bearing Hussein's visage. Others descended upon Hussein's numerous palaces to see how Iraq's richest and most famous man had lived.

At the Republican Palace, which was ringed with American soldiers, Iraqis who had sneaked in over the walls or managed to sweet talk their way past the troops were as astonished as Mohsen by the Council of Ministers Hall, a pyramid-shaped structure reported to have housed security officials, the offices of Hussein's top aides. And none of them even made it inside the palace itself, which features 258 rooms, including a cavernous marble-floored ballroom, a swimming pool and a small zoo, because U.S. troops were standing guard at the gate.

Those outside the compound gaped through entrances that were once barred by wrought-iron gates and patrolled by policemen who would hassle gawkers.

"I thought it was big, but I never thought it was that big," said Hussein Abdelrazak, a cook walking by the one of the palace gates with his young son. "It's like a whole city in there."

The most that ordinary Iraqis had seen of the palace and nearby buildings were television images of Hussein holding court with his ministers or receiving foreign guests in just a few of the rooms. The footage never revealed the scope and magnificence of the complex.

If people had been aware of the secret city behind the high walls, Abdelrazak maintained, they "would not have waited for the Americans."

"We have been starving since the end of the [Persian Gulf War] 12 years ago," he said. "If we had known, we would have stormed it ourselves."

The palace grounds were a study in the oddities and extravagance that characterized the behavior of Hussein and his immediate family. Along the river behind the main palace building, for instance, was a fenced-off enclosure with seven lions, two cheetahs and one forlorn brown bear.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division stumbled upon the animals Thursday while searching for holdouts from the Special Republican Guard troops assigned to defend the compound. The animals, particularly the bear and the lions, appeared emaciated, so the soldiers tossed live sheep into each enclosure. But after discovering that the lions had been declawed and were unable to catch their prey, the soldiers slaughtered the sheep themselves.

The animals are thought to have belonged to Hussein's eldest son, Uday, a playboy who kept a stable of sports cars and would occasionally show up at restaurants with a lion cub or two.

Other dangers were discovered by looters. Soldiers found a massive cache of weapons in a small house next to the compound after people were spotted running away with hundreds of brand new 9mm Beretta pistols.

When a contingent from the 3rd Infantry dispersed the crowd, they discovered a veritable arms warehouse. The floor of three rooms and the kitchen were covered with guns and ammunition a foot deep. There were AK-27 assault rifles, grenade launchers, boxes of C-4 plastic explosive, pump-action 12-gauge shotguns, loose grenades, Belgian-manufactured HK-5 pistol-machine guns and more than 1,000 empty Beretta boxes. There were plenty of American-made arms too, including a Bushmaster XM-15, the civilian version of the M-16 rifle. There were five boxes of Austrian-made Steyer automatic rifles whose shipping labels listed the receiving party as Prince Abdullah, then head of Jordan's special forces and now that country's reigning monarch.

"We thought there was a big riot going on in here," said Sgt. Michael Anslinger, 37, of Glendora, Calif. "But when we came in, we found more guns then we could imagine."

Documents discovered at the house by journalists indicated that the weapons were procured for Uday Hussein. Among the papers were letters from foreign organizations stating that various ceremonial rifles and swords were gifts for him.

While some Iraqis were busy arming themselves, others sought answers at the military intelligence headquarters, where several wailing women used their hands to dig into the ground, believing their sons and husbands were being held in underground jails, despite assurances from U.S. soldiers who used explosives to excavate parts of the site that there was no such dungeon.

"Help me!" one elderly woman in a black veil sobbed. "I know my son is here."

Those who appeared at the palace were far more reserved, perhaps out of fear of attracting attention from the U.S. troops.

"This is the first time we've seen anything like this," said Mohammed Rathar, a farmer from Kut, a city about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. "We didn't believe he would have things like this."

The American soldiers who are bunking at the palace -- where they are enjoying flush toilets and showers after weeks in the desert -- also expressed surprise at the extravagance. The floors were marble, the fixtures gold-plated and the chandeliers enormous.

"If you sold this floor," Lt. Joe Peppers remarked as he walked though one particularly spacious room, "you could live off it for the rest of your life."

Although U.S. airstrikes obliterated many of the buildings on the palace grounds, the palace itself was unscathed. Peppers surmised that was because U.S. military commanders want Iraq's new government to take over the premises.

For this reason, he said, the soldiers are confining themselves only to one small section of the palace, where they sleep on the floor. "It will be easier to move out when the time comes," he said.

When the soldiers arrived at the palace on Wednesday morning, before the start of city-wide looting, he said they found a building devoid of furniture and official papers. A thick layer of dust coated the floor, presumably because cleaners left weeks ago. There was no sign that Saddam Hussein had been there recently.

"It was like they were preparing for our arrival," Peppers said. "They took everything away."