By Marie Colvin
Austria January 22, 1995
Latif Yahia spat in the mirror when he saw himself for the first time after being forced to undergo plastic surgery. But it was too late. He now looked exactly like Uday Hussein, the eldest son of the Iraqi president.
He spent the next four years as Uday’s double, a time he now refers to as “years of blood”. He was trapped at the heart of one of the most secretive, paranoid and brutal regimes on earth learning its secrets while treading a tightrope between the pampered privileges of the inner circle and the terror of knowing that he could be shot at any moment.
Yahia has now spoken for the first time about how he was tortured into taking on the role, how he was turned physically and mentally into a terrible imitation of Saddam’s murderous and licentious son, how he eventually escaped, and how he is now trying to exorcise the evil persona that entered him.
He has also revealed that Saddam like Stalin and Churchill has his own series of doubles, who are forced to undertake potentially dangerous public appearances. The present “Saddam” replaced one who was assassinated in an attempt on the dictator’s life.
Yahia attended public parties and football matches in his assumed role and posed with soldiers at the Kuwaiti front, so Uday would face no danger but the Iraqi people would believe Saddam had sent his son to serve in the Mother of all Battles. Yahia survived nine assassination attempts.
Only once did he give thanks for his hated new identity. When Yahia finally fled Iraq, soldiers manning checkpoints leaped out of the way and saluted as he sped north in his Oldsmobile, also a double for one of Uday’s cars.
He came to think of himself as a monster. The man he had to impersonate is feared as much as his father in Iraq. He is a spoilt, brutal playboy who flies into uncontrollable rages when crossed and whose violent excesses are covered up by the security forces.
Uday even fell out with his father when he beat to death Saddam’s favourite retainer in a drunken rage in 1988 and was briefly exiled to Geneva. Father and son now appear to be reconciled; last year, Iraqi exiles reported that Saddam had executed three senior military officers after they suggested Uday was not up to the job of defence minister that his father wanted to give him.
Since the Gulf war, Uday has tried to make his image more serious by founding Babil newspaper and a radio and television station that broadcasts popular western entertainment. But Yahia witnessed the sinister private activities of Saddam’s son, which he said included earning millions of pounds from black-market deals in whisky, cigarettes and food while normal Iraqis suffered under international sanctions, and entertaining friends with torture videos shot in his father’s prisons.
Yahia’s story is fascinating, not just as the tale of a man pushed to unbelievable psychological limits, but also because it gives a remarkable insight into the most secretive of worlds, the life of Saddam Hussein and his family.
Now in Vienna as a political exile, the 30-year-old refugee is trying to recover his lost identity. It is disconcerting to meet him. He still looks exactly like Uday, still dresses in the same sharp European suits the dictator’s son favours, sports the same heavy gold jewellery and black Ray-Ban sunglasses. He smokes a Cuban cigar with the same motions and has the same beard that distinguishes Uday from other Iraqis, who have only moustaches.
He is soft-spoken and polite, but old habits die hard. Taking out a cigar, he holds it until somebody lights it, even though the retainers that swarmed around him in his old role as Uday are long gone. He has, however, stopped beating his wife: the violent streak he picked up from his double now sickens him.
YAHIA wants to destroy Uday, but he has not changed his appearance because he has no other identity, a dilemma that would have fascinated Sigmund Freud, who lived in the same Vienna street where Yahia’s hideout is.
Yahia’s case is like none Freud ever came across. He grew up in Baghdad, the son of a wealthy Kurdish merchant, and attended the exclusive Baghdad High School for Boys. Uday was in the same class and the two boys resembled each other. “But I did not welcome looking similar,” he said. “Uday had very bad manners with people even then.”
After graduating from Baghdad University in 1986 with a law degree, he went off to fight in the Iran-Iraq war, like most young Iraqi males. He was a first lieutenant serving in a forward reconnaissance unit in September 1987 when he received a presidential order to report to Baghdad.
Uday welcomed him in an ornate salon in the presidential palace. There was chit-chat about their schooldays and polite questions about his family before Uday came to the point. “Do you want to be a son of Saddam?” he asked. Wary, Yahia answered: “We are all sons of Saddam.”
“Well, I would like you to be a real son of Saddam, working with me. I don’t want you as protection but as my double.”
Yahia recalled: “I was afraid. I knew this was a government of criminals. So I asked him what would happen if I agreed, and what would happen if I refused. Uday told me that if I agreed, `all that you dream will happen’. He said I would have money, servants, houses, women. If I refused, he said, `We will remain friends’.”
Uday left him alone, desperately trying to think up an excuse. When he returned, Yahia had formulated what he thought was a diplomatic way out. “All Iraqis want to serve the president,” he said. “I am serving my president as a soldier and I would not like to be more than that.”
Uday’s eyes reddened in rage; he tore the military epaulettes from Yahia’s shoulders and called in security officers. Yahia was blindfolded, driven for an hour in a car (later he would realise he had only been driven around the presidential grounds), and imprisoned in a tiny cell that was painted entirely blood-red.
“I suffered every kind of torture,” Yahia recalled. He said he was beaten with a cable, hanged from the ceiling by his hands, fed only bread or rice and water at different times of day so that he would become disorientated. He was told that if he continued to refuse, he would spend the rest of his life in the cell. After a week, he cracked.
Four days later he signed papers promising he would act as Uday’s double and reveal nothing about his activities. The contract ended with a warning: any violation and the penalty was death by hanging. Two weeks later, surgery began at the Ibn Sina hospital in the palace complex. Dentists removed his front teeth and replaced them with teeth like Uday’s; doctors cut a cleft into his chin.
“I hated myself,” he said. “All my family and friends hated Saddam; so looking like his son, I was disgusted with myself.”
He began his “special education”: 16 hours a day watching videos of Uday walk, dance, drive, talk, get in and out of cars, light cigars, drink Scotch. A trainer would then take him through each movement over and over 20, 30, 40 times, day after day until he got it right.
“I never drank before, or smoked, or danced. I was very correct with people,” Yahia said. “I had to learn to drink Dimple (Uday’s brand of whisky), smoke cigars and talk differently. And I had to learn to be rude with people, like him.” He also learned intelligence and sabotage techniques, and was taught to check under cars before getting into them.
After six months of intensive training, Yahia made his first public appearance as his double at a football match at the People’s Stadium, where he was surrounded by people who knew the president’s son. With a trainer by his elbow every moment, even driving the black Mercedes 500SL that was Uday’s favourite car, Yahia passed muster. He remembers thinking when he arrived back at the sumptuous villa Uday had given him: “Latif Yahia doesn’t exist any more.”
FOUR lost years followed. Yahia appeared as Uday and travelled with him to London, Geneva and Paris. Whenever Uday wanted a suit he preferred Christian Dior and Yves St Laurent he bought two: one for himself, one for Yahia. Uday owned more than 100 luxury cars, and selected them daily to match the colour of his suit.
Outside Baghdad, Yahia would travel in a security convoy as Uday, sometimes with as many as 72 bodyguards. By the time of the Gulf war, Saddam had so much confidence in Yahia that he used him in a cruel confidence trick against his own people. Every Iraqi remembers the visit by Uday to troops on the Kuwaiti front; in fact it was Yahia, sent there with a television crew to counteract truthful reports that Saddam’s family had fled to safety outside Iraq.
During the years of their “partnership”, Uday gave him only one rule: “Don’t touch my girls.” At one point, Uday sent him to prison for 21 days because a girlfriend of Uday’s became angry with Yahia, and told the president’s son that he had tried to seduce her. When he was released, his double gave him a Mercedes by way of apology.
Uday often beat his guards, so in public Yahia would have to do the same. He had to learn to curse people; now, in an embarrassed voice, he repeats Uday’s favourites. “I would have to say `Your mother is a whore’ and things like that,” Yahia said.
Gradually his public life merged with his private; he is ashamed to admit that he began to beat his wife, Bushra. “I would kill Uday if I saw him again,” Yahia said. “I would cut his body into small pieces and feed it to dogs. He made out of me a criminal like himself.”
Yahia was at a party on the river Tigris given for Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian president, when Uday committed one of his worst outrages. Uday hated Kamel Hanna, his father’s favourite retainer, for serving as the go-between for Saddam’s mistress, Samira Shahbandar, wife of the president of Iraq Airways. When Hanna failed to invite Uday to the Mubarak reception, he threw a party nearby out of spite; hearing shots at midnight, he crashed drunkenly into Hanna’s celebration.
Uday saw Hanna firing into the air, Yahia recalled, and ordered him to stop shooting. “I only take orders from the president,” Hanna replied. The night degenerated into violent chaos. Uday cut Hanna’s neck and beat him, then downed pills at the thought of his father’s anger. Both were taken to hospital, where Uday met Saddam waiting for word of his aide.
“Saddam grabbed Uday by the shirt and said: `If Kamel dies, you die’,” Yahia said. Hanna died that night, but Uday’s mother intervened to save her son. Yahia worried that he would be executed instead of Uday, but there had been too many witnesses.
LIFE was not all misery. Yahia had three villas, six luxury cars, all the money he wanted, beautiful women in droves. “But I was always afraid,” he said. “I was afraid Uday would kill me. I was afraid of being killed instead of Uday. Nine times I suffered assassination attempts.”
The attempts to kill him were sometimes by family members outraged that Uday had dishonoured their women, sometimes by political opponents. Once, he recalled, an outraged man burst into Uday’s office at the Special Olympic Committee, which he headed, claiming he had raped his young daughter. The father said he had killed his daughter because of the dishonour and wanted satisfaction from Uday.
“Uday pulled out his pistol and shot him on the spot,” Yahia recalled. “I sat in his office, six metres away. I was not shocked. I had seen it before. I knew I could do nothing.”
Yahia described a permanent atmosphere of fear in the presidential palace. Even those closest to Saddam refrained from speaking openly; everyone was afraid that they would be reported as disloyal, and the penalty was death.
He said Qusai, Saddam’s younger son, who now heads the presidential intelligence agency, was the Iraqi president’s favourite and heir apparent. “Uday never called his father `dad’,” Yahia said. “Even in private he addressed him as `your excellency’.”
One of the few people with whom Yahia could relax was Saddam’s double, Fawaz al-Emari. He was the second man trained to impersonate the Iraqi president; his predecessor was killed posing as Saddam in 1984.
Emari had undergone far more extensive surgery than Yahia. His face had been entirely remodelled in Yugoslavia, and Russian doctors in Baghdad had operated on his vocal cords so he would speak exactly like Saddam. “Sometimes when I met him, for a moment I would be afraid, thinking he was Saddam. And we were good friends,” said Yahia.
He and Emari would practise target-shooting together in the palace grounds, which included a swimming pool, cinema, theatre, hospital and sports centre. “We spoke about general matters, but never about what we really felt or our activities. We were both too afraid one would betray the other,” he said.
Both doubles had to undergo weekly medical examinations. Doctors at the presidential palace would check that they were still the same weight as their masters, that their health was good, and that their surgery work remained sufficient for impersonation.
Saddam’s double remains in the palace to this day, a virtual prisoner of his identity. “Fawaz had a much more difficult life than me,” Yahia said. “At least Uday went out all the time to restaurants, parties and discos, so I could. Saddam never did these things so Fawaz never could. He could not even go outside and walk on a street looking like Saddam; he would have been killed. He was banned from ever leaving the palace except when he was working.”
Work meant big formal occasions, including a hugely publicised swim by “Saddam” in the Tigris on July 26, 1992. The swim was staged to prove that the president was alive and in good spirits despite the devastation of the Gulf war. In fact, he was afraid to appear in public and exposed his double to danger instead.
YAHIA made the decision to flee almost a year after the allies liberated Kuwait in February 1991. His relationship with Uday had become increasingly tense.
“We were at a party at the Rasheed hotel,” Yahia recalled. “Uday was invited by the president to receive four medals for his role in the Mother of all Battles. I joked, `You are not worth receiving these: I was in Kuwait instead of you.’ Uday said there was no difference, but he was not happy with me.”
The danger sign came the next night at another party, when Uday’s “love-broker”, who procured girls for the president’s son, upbraided Yahia for refusing to sell him a car. Then Uday also turned on Yahia.
The master apparently sensed that his double was going to make a break for freedom and decided to stop him. As Yahia stepped from a lift into the lobby of the Babylon hotel in Baghdad the next morning, Uday suddenly appeared and shot him. The bullet hit him high in the chest, missing vital organs.
Bleeding heavily, he says, he managed to get to his car and drive north towards the UN-protected safe haven in Kurdistan. To his surprise, Iraqi guards had not been alerted. “At every checkpoint, nobody stopped me, they just waved me through. I would see them saluting in my (rear-view) mirror.”
Yahia has the scars to support his story: a round wound in the top of his right chest, an exit hole out the back. As he approached Kurdistan, he needed urgent medical treatment and feared the reception he would get from the Kurds. “I could not go directly to Kurdistan. If the Kurds saw me, they would think I was Uday and kill me. So I abandoned my car in the woods, and went to a friend’s house. I am from a Kurdish family, so they helped me.”
Through the Kurdish underground, he reached the American operations headquarters in the Kurdish town of Zakho. The Americans, wary at first, flew in four intelligence officers to debrief him. His wife, who had gone into hiding, was helped out by the same Kurdish underground, and their baby daughter was smuggled to Jordan by friends.
With the help of the Americans, he was granted political asylum in Vienna where many Iraqis live. But an import-export company he set up has failed to prosper and, because of Vienna’s close connections with Baghdad, the city has a high number of Iraqi government representatives. Any one of them, he fears, might be a potential assassin.
His anxiety heightened last September when he received a letter from the Iraqi embassy saying he had been granted an amnesty and should return to Baghdad. The message came on his personal fax machine, even though he is living in hiding and gives the number only to close personal friends.
Yahia is afraid to send his daughter, Tamara, now five, to school in case his whereabouts can be traced through her. He keeps his wife, daughter and Omar, their 18-month son, with him even at the office.
Most of all, he finds it difficult to recover any sense of himself. “Uday stole my life, my future, my identity,” he said. His wife agrees. Watching videos of Yahia posing as Uday in Baghdad, she shivered when she saw the man on the screen roughly grab a tissue proffered by an aide.
“He changed so much in his manners,” she said. “Before, he was a normal person, but after he was tough and violent. He would hit me or kick me, and many times I thought of getting divorced. But I know now he is trying very hard to recover himself.”