Double Jeopardy: Iraqi Worked As Stand-In For Saddam's Son
LONDON - His feet, shod in expensive patent leather, twist in and out while he turns a large onyx ring on his right hand. Latif Yahia cannot shake the tastes and habits of his double, the man he hates most: Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Odai.
Yahia says Odai is a wife-beating, brandy-swigging, looting, conniving murderer.
"So am I," says Yahia, who worked five years as a stand-in for Odai before defecting.
Except, he quickly corrects himself, he was not a murderer.
"I am trying to get rid of the way I get angry, the way I behave if I'm provoked, the way I get violent and want to hit someone," he said. "I have changed a lot. I used to hit my wife; I sent her to hospital. I'm no longer that person."
Yahia now lives under the careful watch of Scotland Yard. Western officials will not comment on his story, but other Iraqi exiles corroborate some of his charges.
Although he is not in hiding, Yahia is careful about giving out his address and phone number and meets with strangers only if they are known to people he trusts.
Plucked out of front lines
Fortune and design combined to make the strange five-year career that Latif Yahia recounts:
In 1987, when he was a 23-year-old soldier, he received a letter asking him to appear at the presidential palace in Baghdad within 72 hours.
It was not Saddam Hussein, but Odai who made the call. The two had gone to school together, and Odai had remembered how much classmates remarked on their resemblance.
Odai, who was earning his share of enemies, wanted a "fedai" - a double who would take his place in dangerous situations.
Yahia remembered his classmate as the fellow who rolled up to school in a Porsche, who returned to the all-male dorm with girlfriends who later emerged bruised and weeping, who fired his gun into the air when teachers crossed him.
Odai wasn't just the local bully, but the bully backed by the most powerful dad in the land. Knowing why Odai might need a double, Yahia politely declined.
"He became very nervous. He started shaking and screaming," Yahia recalled. "He tore off my epaulets. I was blindfolded and driven to prison."
Offer he couldn't refuse
Yahia was kept in an all-red cell, lit 24 hours a day by red light. "I wasn't physically tortured, but it was a mental torture. It was worse. After seven days, I agreed."
That was followed by six months of intense training: learning to roll his "r's" like Odai, watching videos to get the tics and mannerisms right. "Odai is taller, so I had to wear platform shoes," Yahia said.
To perfect the effect, surgeons capped his teeth and added a cleft to his chin. In photos and videos of his performance, only intimates can spot the difference.
Then, there was the personality. Odai was unable to contain his arrogance even in public - he would upbraid officers at televised events - so, to be completely convincing, the soft-spoken Yahia had to learn to be what he calls "rude."
That meant telling people, "You're mother is a whore"; that meant beating underlings. Worst of all, he said, it resulted in taking violence home to his wife, Bushra.
Stand-in for a killer
Murder was the only one of Odai's enthusiasms he did not share, Yahia claims. He recites them like a gruesome resume: "He killed Kamel Hanna, his father's right-hand man. He killed him at a party; he shot him to death. He killed a pilot. He raped a girl - she was a student at the University of Baghdad - and when her father confronted him, Odai killed him."
Despite all this, Yahia stuck with it. There were risks: When he visited the front in southern Iraq in 1991, where Shiite Muslims were rebelling, he took shrapnel meant for Odai.
But there also were perks: On similar missions to the Kuwaiti front - again to prove to the Iraqi nation the courage of the president's son - he came away with $25 million in loot.
As much as he was useful to Odai, even Yahia could not escape his eventual cruelty. Yahia unwisely teased his double about the medals he wore for the Kuwaiti offensive, saying he had won them for Odai; then, a woman Odai was attracted to showed more interest in Yahia.
Odai shot his double in a hotel lobby.
It probably was only a warning - the shot just grazed Yahia - but he got the message. He got into his car and drove north, later sending for his wife and daughter.
Rebels thought they hit jackpot
At first, thinking they had Odai, rebels in northern Iraq imprisoned Yahia and his wife. It was there that she forgave him, Yahia says. "She has proved she cared," he said.
Kurdish rebels finally got Yahia, an ethnic Kurd, released from prison. He was questioned by U.S. agents. What he had to say impressed the State Department enough for it to organize his asylum in Vienna, Austria, where he moved in March 1992.
Yahia still shares one of Odai's more pronounced traits: paranoia. He claims assassins twice attempted to kill him in Vienna. That, and the fact that Iraq's biggest European embassy is in the Austrian capital, prompted him to move to London last March.
"The British government has tried to make me secure," he said.
Still, Yahia is jittery. He won't allow his 7-year-old daughter to attend school. The one-time high-living playboy confines his leisure time to weekend country outings with his family.
He has given up drinking - Odai's favorites were Napoleon brandy and Dimple whisky - because it always made him sick.
Are there any vices he couldn't give up? He gave the Cuban cigar between his fingers a fond glance. "I couldn't give up smoking cigars."
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