Uday Hussein’s many vices and wanton sadism appalled even his father. And one man was on hand to witness it all – Uday’s unwilling ‘body double’
The siege of the Iraqi mansion lasted five hours, starting with a loudspeakered call to surrender and ending with the crash of missiles from a United States helicopter gunship. By the time it was over, half the house’s wedding cake-style facade was missing, affording the media a unique, through-the-rocket-hole tour when they were finally allowed near it.
Inside we found an elegant inner balcony splintered with bullets, and for anyone with a knowledge of gangster movies, one scene sprang to mind: the closing shots of Scarface, where Al Pacino’s drug baron makes his famous last stand.
“That film was mentioned a couple of times,” grinned Lieutenant Colonel Rick Carlson, commander of a unit involved in the raid, when I put this to him later.
So came the spectacular demise of Saddam Hussein’s notorious sons Uday and Qusay, whose lives resembled a real-life gangster flick, and whose deaths in July 2003 produced one of the few moments of universal good cheer in the ever-mounting gloom of post-war Iraq. For the US military, it was a much-needed morale boost in a steadily fraying mission, netting both the Ace of Hearts and the Ace of Clubs in the “Deck of 55” most wanted. For Iraqis, meanwhile, it meant the passing of two of the regime’s most feared men – in particular Uday, whose psychotic, unhinged brutality made his father look statesmanlike.
Yet as celebratory gunfire erupted over Baghdad, Latif Yahia, a 39-year-old former commando, was one of the few Iraqis who didn’t reach for his Kalashnikov. Not just because he was thousands of miles away in exile in England, where assault rifles are still frowned upon as party poppers, but because he didn’t want to cheer. He wanted to cry.
“The Americans should have taken Uday alive,” he tells me now. “I wanted him to face trial, so that I could tell the world what he had done, all the killing.”
Playboy, murderer, and sadist extraordinaire, Saddam’s elder son left no shortage of people with horror stories to tell in his wake. Yet for Latif, the trauma of his encounter with him was uniquely personal, one that still haunts him every time he looks in the mirror. For back in 1987, after noticing his striking likeness to Saddam’s son, Iraq’s secret service picked him to be Uday’s “fiday”, or body double, a job that involved becoming the living, breathing copy of the nation’s greatest hate figure.
Being the stand-in man on any occasion where Uday feared one of his many enemies might assassinate him was just one of Latif’s occupational hazards. Far worse was the window it gave him into the ruling family’s inner circle, attending Uday’s debauched parties, mixing with his entourage of pimps and thugs, and looking on as his doppelganger rampaged with impunity. And, to his ultimate horror and guilt, sometimes enjoying it.
“Until now, I haven’t slept properly because of thinking about him,” he said. “I am stuck with Uday for the rest of my life, and will probably take him with me to my grave.”
Now, though, 19 years after fleeing Iraq and claiming asylum in Europe, Latif has another chance to give Uday’s crimes an airing, and, hopefully, give his designer-stubbled, Ray Ban-wearing demon a final exorcism.
The Devil’s Double, released this week, is a film loosely-based on Uday’s early life – shot entirely from the point of view of his body double. Coming in the wake ofGreen Zoneand theHurt Locker, it is the first major Iraq movie to explore life in the ruling clan. And while Uday played no real role in the wider political drama of the war, he proves an illuminating focus point, being in many ways the personification of the regime’s dark side.
Addicted to drink, sex and violence in equal measure, he was despised even more than his father – as I myself found when I was a correspondent based in Baghdad after the war.
On the hot July night that news emerged that he had been killed, the Iraqi capital erupted with so much gunfire that I thought a full-scale insurrection had broken out; by contrast, the celebrations when Saddam was caught five months later were more muted.