Hussein Son’s Ex-Double Lives in Exile, Looks Over Shoulder : Iraq: Latif Yahia was recruited and taught to be Odai Hussein. He embraced a way of life that was, at best, reprehensible.
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,” said 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 in a recent interview. “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 about Odai’s behavior and there have been recent reports out of Iraq that Odai may be on the outs with his father because of his excesses.
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. He said by telephone that he has changed his appearance since the interview.
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 on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, 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--Odai Hussein is just four days younger than Yahia--and Odai had remembered how much classmates remarked on their resemblance.
Odai, who was earning his share of enemies as the up-and-coming son of Iraq’s leader, 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. Understanding all too well 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.”
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, blushing.
To perfect the effect, surgeons shaved and capped his teeth and added a cleft to his chin. In photos and videos of his performance, only those who know enough to spot Yahia’s higher forehead can tell 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, “Your mother is a whore.” That meant beating underlings. Worst of all, he said, it resulted in taking violence home to his wife, Bushra.
Yahia said internalizing Odai’s way of life--hard drinking, violence and contemptuousness for women--prompted him to hit Bushra for the first time in his life. The beatings eventually landed her in a hospital.
“My wife feels secure now, but once she didn’t trust me very well,” he said. “I love and respect my wife. She suffered a lot with me.”
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 these displays of cruelty--many of them independently corroborated by other Iraqi exiles--Yahia kept at the job. 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 were also 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.
These days, Yahia seems to earn a good living. He lives in a posh apartment in west London and wears impeccably tailored suits. But he won’t elaborate on his activities, saying only that he is in “business.”
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, he refused to sell a car to the man who pimped for Odai. Finally, a woman Odai was attracted to showed more interest in Yahia.
Odai shot his double in a hotel lobby.
It was probably only a warning--the shot just grazed Yahia--but he got the message. He got into his Oldsmobile and drove north, later sending for his wife and daughter.
At first, thinking they had Odai, rebels in northern Iraq imprisoned Yahia and his wife. It was there that they became husband and wife again, and that she forgave him, Yahia says. “She has proved she cared,” he said.
It is for the sin of beating his wife--the one crime in which Odai was not directly involved--that Yahia is least forgiving. For turning him into someone who would do that, he would gladly kill Odai, Yahia said.
Kurdish rebels finally got Yahia, an ethnic Kurd, released from prison. He was questioned by American agents. What he had to say impressed the State Department enough for it to organize his asylum in Vienna, 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, although I am not safe in England,” he said. “There was an assassination attempt in May. I thought at first it was Iraqi intelligence, but it was members of the Iraqi opposition.”
He says the opposition is riddled with Saddam Hussein’s agents, and has started his own opposition group, the Iraqi Liberation Organization. He was unable to name any partners in this venture, however, saying only: “We have people inside Iraq.”
He has written a book about his experiences.
Yahia, however, seems animated entirely by personal hatred for Odai. He still admires Saddam.
“Saddam is viewed as a war criminal, but he has shown generosity towards his own people; he has helped the poor and the needy,” he said.
Spokesmen for the Iraqi opposition snort in derision about his fears. Yahia is three years away from any involvement in Iraq and is hardly important enough for anyone to kill, they say. Scotland Yard says the “assassination attempt” was little more than a traffic altercation.
Still, Yahia is jittery. He checks out reporters before agreeing to interviews. Six months in England, his English is practically nonexistent, and he speaks through an interpreter. He won’t allow his 7-year-old daughter to attend school. The onetime 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 whiskey--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.”
Above all, his identity confuses him. Asked whether he has left Odai behind, he said: “I’m trying to forget what I underwent. I am no longer the double of Odai. I want to get rid of everything associated with him.”
Then, after a couple of puffs on his cigar--and a question about his wife: “I have totally changed. I am no longer innocent; I have become a beast.”