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27 May 2009

Abu Dhabi

The bizarre double life of Latif Yahia

Michael Theodoulou, Foreign Correspondent

  • Last Updated: May 27. 2009 11:07AM UAE / May 27. 2009 7:07AM GMT

LARNACA, CYPRUS // Latif Yahia escaped from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq nearly two decades ago, but has yet to escape his past. It is a past so bizarre, lurid and unique that some have questioned Mr Yahia’s story – that for several years he was forced to play the body double of Uday Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator’s psychopathic and depraved elder son.

“The problem is people think because I was the double of Uday, that I’m a bull******* like him,” says Mr Yahia, puffing on a Marlboro at his Babylonian Arabic cafe near the seafront in Larnaca, a placid tourist town in Cyprus.

For nearly two decades he has sought in vain for a home in the West for his family. His odyssey across Europe included periods in Austria, Holland, Norway, Germany, Britain and in Ireland, where he lived for 12 years.

Since August, he has been in Cyprus with his Irish wife, their two children and his mother, Bahar. No refuge has worked out. He is once more desperate to move on, but claims a vengeful CIA is thwarting his every attempt to secure a normal life anywhere for his family because he refused to co-operate with the US intelligence agency.

He says the CIA wanted him to head the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a US-backed umbrella organisation of mostly exiled opposition groups created in 1992 to foment the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yahia refused, despite, he says, being offered a blank cheque for his services. “I didn’t want to be a traitor.”

It was only then, he claims, that the INC job was given to Ahmed Chalabi, a controversial figure who went on to head the opposition group for many years.

Then, before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Mr Yahia says the CIA asked him to pretend to be Uday in a video to be released once hostilities began. In the video, he says, he was to urge the Iraqi army “to surrender and let the Americans come in”. Again he refused: “I wasn’t a traitor and I didn’t trust the CIA.”

Bitterly, he savours another irony: “For Saddam Hussein’s regime I was a traitor and for this regime [the current Iraqi government] I’m a collaborator, especially when they see I was against the war [the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq].”

The mostly Cypriot customers and occasional British tourist at his cafe have no idea who he is. But any Iraqi popping in would do a double take. Mr Yahia, 45, still bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Uday: he has a close-cropped helmet of black hair, a goatee, thick eyebrows, full lips and a bulging nose.

His account of his 4½ years as the would-be bullet-catcher for Uday is documented in two books, I Was Saddam’s Son, published in 1994, and The Devil’s Double, in 2003. A feature film combining the two, titled The Devil’s Double, is in the works, directed by Lee Tamahori of Once Were Warriors fame and Die Another Day, the 20th Bond movie.

Mr Yahia’s memoirs portray the clan surrounding the Iraqi leader in his Macbeth-like court as a gang of sadistic, bloodthirsty killers with Uday at the front of the pack, raping and pillaging with impunity.

When Mr Yahia’s second book was published six years ago some opponents of the US-led invasion of Iraq dismissed it as opportunistic propaganda against Saddam. But the horrors uncovered in Iraq after the dictator’s fall provided compelling evidence of the astonishing cruelty of Saddam’s regime and the depredations Mr Yahia had so graphically catalogued. Mass graves and torture chambers were found, as was Uday’s extensive collection of pornography.

Even those who question Mr Yahia’s credibility acknowledge no tale of Uday’s cruelty and depravity is implausible. To most Iraqis, he was evil incarnate, more feared and loathed than his father.

Mr Yahia’s account begins during the 1980-88 war with Iran, when he served as an officer in the Iraqi army. The scion of a wealthy family, Mr Yahia had attended an elite Baghdad school with Uday, where he was teased about his remarkable likeness to the dictator’s unruly son. In 1987 Uday asked him if he would play his “fiday”, an Arabic word for double that also implies the role of a deputy and bodyguard. Mr Yahia at first resisted, but after Uday locked him in a tiny cell, daubed entirely in red paint, and made “vile threats” against his family, Mr Yahia says he succumbed.

An intensive training period began. Mr Yahia was subjected to dental surgery to recreate Uday’s “chimpanzee” grin and lisp: work that he says he has since reversed. He watched countless hours of videos of Uday to learn how to mimic his master’s mannerisms, from the way he held his fat Cuban cigar to his one-handed driving style.

To desensitise him to the regime’s brutality, Mr Yahia says he also had to watch tapes of Uday and his security forces torturing dissidents and personal enemies to death.

The job came with a lifestyle of expensive cars, fine clothes and access to the clannish corridors of power in Baghdad, although Mr Yahia says none of this was an attraction: he came from a wealthy family anyway. The drawbacks, however, were unimaginably bad. Effectively he was a prisoner in a gilded cage. As Uday’s fiday, he says, he survived 11 assassination attempts by people who mistook him for Saddam’s elder son. There are deep scars on Mr Yahia’s right hand, the result, he says, of one of the most serious attempts.

After fleeing Iraq, he adds, Saddam’s regime made four more attempts on his life in European countries. Despite his special role, Mr Yahia also found himself victim of Uday’s unpredictable rages and was beaten on whim.

Although he says he was forced to watch as Uday brutalised fellow Iraqis, Mr Yahia says he never took part in rape or murder and was never even a member of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party. “One time he [Uday] asked me to kill someone and I refused and tried to kill myself,” Mr Yahia says, showing scars on both his wrists where he says he had slashed himself.

He felt “horrible” being Uday’s fiday but not guilty because he was forced into the role. “It wasn’t a job you applied for,” he says drily. “I didn’t choose my past, I was forced.”

But he does feel “selfish” that he never used the gun he always carried to “put a bullet in his [Uday’s] head and stop the horrible things he was doing”. Mr Yahia says his trigger finger was stayed by the knowledge that all of his family would have been killed by the regime in revenge.

In November 1991 he finally fled Uday’s clutches, speeding in his Mercedes-Benz to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. In March 1992 a US helicopter whisked him across the border into Turkey, he says.

The CIA helped him escape Iraq in return for his agreement to help the agency, he says. “I said anything to get out.” Once safe, he told the CIA: “I am against Saddam but not Iraq … I didn’t want to be a traitor.”

Mr Yahia is personable, engaging, larger than life, clearly bright and well educated. But it is hardly surprising that he has enemies. He makes startling accusations against powerful people and institutions. These range from the CIA, which, he claims, together with Austrian intelligence, tortured him for nearly a year in a secret cell near Vienna because he refused to co-operate with them – an episode detailed in a third book, The Black Hole, published in 2006 – to the current Iraqi government whose members he brands as “pimps, criminals and traitors”. They are, he insists, “worse than Saddam … these [US-backed] puppets in Iraq have done to Iraq what Saddam failed to do in 35 years.”

The US-led invasion and its aftermath, he argues, killed 1.5 million people and led a further five million to flee their homeland. George W Bush, the former US president, and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, he says, “are the murderers of the Iraqi people and should be brought to justice”.

Mr Yahia says 145 members of his extended family were killed in a US air raid as they made their way to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul for a funeral in mid-2006. The incinerated bodies were “crispy” and unidentifiable. “I think this is what they call the liberation of Iraq,” he says, with bitter sarcasm.

If Mr Yahia seems conspiracy-minded or paranoid it is hardly surprising, given his account of his extraordinary experiences. Perhaps his most intriguing claim to The National was that the inflammatory unofficial video footage of Saddam’s hanging in December 2003 was taken by a senior Iraqi government official.

Mr Yahia alleges that within hours of the execution the official sent him the footage in a taunting e-mail that said: “Ha, ha, ha, look what they’ve done to your father! You’ll be next.”

He claims that he promptly forwarded the e-mail and video footage to contacts at Al Jazeera, Reuters and the Associated Press. A senior editor at Al Jazeera television denied that anyone had sent them the unofficial execution footage. “We picked it up from the internet. It wasn’t an exclusive.”

Official Iraqi accounts had portrayed the execution as a well-organised affair and Saddam as a weak, broken man as he faced the gallows. To the embarrassment of the Iraqi government, the video footage showed a chaotic event, as witnesses mocked a dignified-looking Saddam with sectarian taunts while a noose was put around his neck.

Mr Yahia’s equally personable wife, Karen, fully supports her husband’s claim about receiving the e-mail, saying she was in his office at their home in Ireland when it arrived. They were keeping an all-night vigil for more news after reports emerged that Saddam’s execution was imminent.

Mr Yahia says Saddam “faced death like a lion”. As Uday’s reluctant double, Mr Yahia says he met Saddam frequently. Asked if he liked the ousted dictator, he shrugs, lights another Marlboro – he smokes four packets a day – and says: “I don’t deny that.” He insists, however, he was never a “Saddamist”.

The Iraqi dictator, unlike Uday, had been decent to him. “I never saw Saddam kill anyone or give the order to do so. He was always calm and smiling, always quietly spoken,” Mr Yahia says. Nor, he argues, was the Iraqi dictator informed of the full extent of Uday’s excesses as a serial rapist and killer. But once, “after Uday did a lot of terrible things, he [Saddam] said to me, ‘I wish you were my real son’. I said to him: ‘I am your son’.”

Mr Yahia says he has mementos given him by Saddam stored in a bank safety deposit box, among them a gold and platinum watch bearing the toppled dictator’s face and a pen he says Saddam used to sign off on the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

For Uday, however, Mr Yahia feels only revulsion and hatred. “If I saw him in hell, I’d kill him.” Uday, he says, ruined his life and had his father poisoned in 1995.

When the first bulletins broke in mid-2003 that Uday had been killed by US forces in Mosul, Mr Yahia shattered his plasma television screen with a coffee cup hurled in anger. “I didn’t want him to be killed. I wanted him to face justice.”

Uday, he insists, was a coward, unlike his younger brother, Qusay, “a professional fighter” who was killed in the same siege by 200 soldiers in their Mosul hiding place.

Mr Yahia does not pause for a second when asked what the worst thing was that he had witnessed Uday do. He tells of a grotesque episode in Al Habaniya, Iraq’s leading honeymoon resort, when Uday noticed a newlywed couple walking hand in hand and called over to them. Uday was livid when they ignored him. Mr Yahia attempted to persuade Uday to leave the couple alone, pointing out that they had only been married a few days. Uday snapped back: “This isn’t your business!”

Uday’s “pimps” beat up the husband and forced the beautiful bride to his suite, where he raped her. In shame and despair, she later threw herself to her death from the fourth-floor window of the building.

Mr Yahia says the husband was accused of trying to kill Uday and sentenced to death but was later spared because of his long service in the war against Iran for which he was awarded medals. The man, Yahia claims, was one of those who nearly killed Uday in a 1996 assassination attempt and now lives in Holland.

For five years after his escape from Saddam’s Iraq in 1991, Mr Yahia could see the ghost of Uday simply by looking in the mirror. “Before that I was thinking like him,” he says.

Today, he is no longer haunted by Saddam’s first born. Mr Yahia is back to what he was in 1987, before his fiday nightmare began, although he feels the West has shattered his dreams of leading a normal life.

Despite being married to a citizen of the EU, he remains stateless, equipped only with a temporary Irish travel document. He was stripped of his Iraqi citizenship, he says, because he left Iraq illegally – without his passport or permission – and has never been back.

Today, with Saddam gone, he could return to Iraq, claiming scornfully that he could buy back his citizenship for a few hundred dollars. “But I don’t want to be a citizen of a corrupt country … I don’t want to be an Iraqi any more.”

Mr Yahia is keen to get a message out to any country that considers itself a democracy.

“I want a country called home for me and my family, somewhere I can say ‘here is my country’.

“If I knew the West would treat me like this, I’d [have preferred] a bullet from Saddam Hussein’s government … Every day I suffer and every day I feel dead.”

He is very bitter that Ireland, which allowed him residency rights, refused him citizenship even though he had lived there for 12 years and has an Irish wife. He told an Irish reporter two years ago that his naturalisation application had been rejected because of a baseless claim, passed on by the CIA, that he was an international arms dealer.

“Ireland is not a state of Europe; it’s a state of America,” he says.

Mr Yahia had high hopes of finding a new home in Cyprus, which he entered legally on his temporary Irish travel document. He was relieved to leave behind the incessant rain of Ireland for a sunny country on the doorstep of the Middle East but which is part of the European Union.

The experience soon soured. He invested €172,000 in his cafe, but says numerous attempts to have it licensed have failed. He also had problems with the authorities when his brother, Omid, entered Cyprus illegally in December to seek asylum. Mr Yahia was accused of assisting his entry, which he vehemently denies.

Now Mr Yahia cannot wait to leave Cyprus. Adding to his worries, he says he was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

To escape his past Mr Yahia says he needs a country that looks “at me as a human being, not as Uday’s double”.

When he looks in the mirror today, he says: “I see Latif Yahia, the fighter”.