Tales of the Tyrant

What does Saddam Hussein see in himself that no one else in the world seems to see? The answer is perhaps best revealed by the intimate details of the Iraqi leader's daily life
More

Saddam can be charming, and has a sense of humor about himself. "He told a hilarious story on television," says Khidhir Hamza, a scientist who worked on Iraq's nuclear-weapons project before escaping to the West. "He is an excellent storyteller, the kind who acts out the story with gestures and facial expressions. He described how he had once found himself behind enemy lines in the war with Iran. He had been traveling along the front lines, paying surprise visits, when the Iranian line launched an offensive and effectively cut off his position. The Iranians, of course, had no idea that Saddam was there. The way he told the story, it wasn't boastful or self-congratulatory. He didn't claim to have fought his way out. He said he was scared. Of the troops at his position, he said, 'They just left me!' He repeated 'Just left me!' in a way that was humorous. Then he described how he hid with his pistol, watching the action until his own forces retook the position and he was again on safe ground. 'What can a pistol do in the middle of battle?' he asked. It was charming, extremely charming."

General Wafic Samarai, who served as Saddam's chief of intelligence during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war (and who, after falling out of favor in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, walked for thirty hours through the rugged north of Iraq to escape the country), concurs: "It is pleasant to sit and talk to him. He is serious, and meetings with him can get tense, but you don't get intimidated unless he wants to intimidate you. When he asks for your opinion, he listens very carefully and doesn't interrupt. Likewise, he gets irritated if you interrupt him. 'Let me finish!' he will say sharply."

Saddam has been advised by his doctors to walk at least two hours a day. He rarely manages that much time, but he breaks up his days with strolls. He used to take these walks in public, swooping down with his entourage on neighborhoods in Baghdad, his bodyguards clearing sidewalks and streets as the tyrant passed. Anyone who approached him unsolicited was beaten nearly to death. But now it is too dangerous to walk in public—and the limp must not be seen. So Saddam makes no more unscripted public appearances. He limps freely behind the high walls and patrolled fences of his vast estates. Often he walks with a gun, hunting deer or rabbit in his private preserves. He is an excellent shot.

Saddam has been married for nearly forty years. His wife, Sajida, is his first cousin on his mother's side and the daughter of Khairallah Tulfah, Saddam's uncle and first political mentor. Sajida has borne him two sons and three daughters, and remains loyal to him, but he has long had relationships with other women. Stories circulate about his nightly selecting young virgins for his bed, like the Sultan Shahryar in The Thousand and One Nights, about his having fathered a child with a longtime mistress, and even about his having killed one young woman after a kinky tryst. It is hard to sort the truth from the lies. So many people, in and out of Iraq, hate Saddam that any disgraceful or embarrassing rumor is likely to be embraced, believed, repeated, and written down in the Western press as truth. Those who know him best scoff at the wildest of these tales.

"Saddam has personal relationships with women, but these stories of rape and murder are lies," Samarai says. "He is not that kind of person. He is very careful about himself in everything he does. He is fastidious and very proper, and never wants to give the wrong impression. But he is occasionally attracted to other women, and he has formed relationships with them. They are not the kind of women who would ever talk about him."

Saddam is a loner by nature, and power increases isolation. A young man without power or money is completely free. He has nothing, but he also has everything. He can travel, he can drift. He can make new acquaintances every day, and try to soak up the infinite variety of life. He can seduce and be seduced, start an enterprise and abandon it, join an army or flee a nation, fight to preserve an existing system or plot a revolution. He can reinvent himself daily, according to the discoveries he makes about the world and himself. But if he prospers through the choices he makes, if he acquires a wife, children, wealth, land, and power, his options gradually and inevitably diminish. Responsibility and commitment limit his moves. One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move. The tyrant's choices are the narrowest of all. His life—the nation!—hangs in the balance. He can no longer drift or explore, join or flee. He cannot reinvent himself, because so many others depend on him—and he, in turn, must depend on so many others. He stops learning, because he is walled in by fortresses and palaces, by generals and ministers who rarely dare to tell him what he doesn't wish to hear. Power gradually shuts the tyrant off from the world. Everything comes to him second or third hand. He is deceived daily. He becomes ignorant of his land, his people, even his own family. He exists, finally, only to preserve his wealth and power, to build his legacy. Survival becomes his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one, and tries to control everything.

Major Sabah Khalifa Khodada, a career officer in the Iraqi army, was summoned from his duties as assistant to the commander of a terrorist training camp on January 1, 1996, for an important meeting. It was nighttime. He drove to his command center at Alswayra, southwest of Baghdad, where he and some other military officers were told to strip to their underwear. They removed their clothing, watches, and rings, and handed over their wallets. The clothing was then laundered, sterilized, and x-rayed. Each of the officers, in his underwear, was searched and passed through a metal detector. Each was instructed to wash his hands in a disinfecting permanganate solution.

They then dressed, and were transported in buses with blackened windows, so that they could not see where they were going. They were driven for a half hour or more, and then were searched again as they filed off. They had arrived at an official-looking building, Khodada did not know where. After a time they were taken into a meeting room and seated at a large round table. Then they were told that they were to be given a great honor: the President himself would be meeting with them. They were instructed not to talk, just to listen. When Saddam entered, they were to rise and show him respect. They were not to approach or touch him. For all but his closest aides, the protocol for meeting with the dictator is simple. He dictates.

"Don't interrupt," they were told. "Don't ask questions or make any requests."

Each man was given a pad of paper and a pencil, and instructed to take notes. Tea in a small glass cup was placed before each man and at the empty seat at the head of the table.

When Saddam appeared, they all rose. He stood before his chair and smiled at them. Wearing his military uniform, decorated with medals and gold epaulets, he looked fit, impressive, and self-assured. When he sat, everyone sat. Saddam did not reach for his tea, so the others in the room didn't touch theirs. He told Khodada and the others that they were the best men in the nation, the most trusted and able. That was why they had been selected to meet with him, and to work at the terrorist camps where warriors were being trained to strike back at America. The United States, he said, because of its reckless treatment of Arab nations and the Arab people, was a necessary target for revenge and destruction. American aggression must be stopped in order for Iraq to rebuild and to resume leadership of the Arab world. Saddam talked for almost two hours. Khodada could sense the great hatred in him, the anger over what America had done to his ambitions and to Iraq. Saddam blamed the United States for all the poverty, backwardness, and suffering in his country.

Khodada took notes. He glanced around the room. Few of the others, he concluded, were buying what Saddam told them. These were battle-hardened men of experience from all over the nation. Most had fought in the war with Iran and the Persian Gulf War. They had few illusions about Saddam, his regime, or the troubles of their country. They coped daily with real problems in cities and military camps all over Iraq. They could have told Saddam a lot. But nothing would pass from them to the tyrant. Not one word, not one microorganism.

The meeting had been designed to allow communication in only one direction, and even in this it failed. Saddam's speech was meaningless to his listeners. Khodada despised him, and suspected that others in the room did too. The major knew he was no coward, but, like many of the other military men there, he was filled with fear. He was afraid to make a wrong move, afraid he might accidentally draw attention to himself, do something unscripted. He was grateful that he felt no urge to sneeze, sniffle, or cough.

When the meeting was over, Saddam simply left the room. The teacups had not been touched. The men were then returned to the buses and driven back to Alswayra, from which they drove back to their camps or homes. The meeting with Saddam had meant nothing. The notes they had been ordered to take were worthless. It was as if they had briefly visited a fantasy zone with no connection to their own world.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In