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 of Green Zone and the Hurt 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.
Iraqis used to tell me that their worst nightmare was Uday inheriting power, a fear that was not without justification, if the words that Latif claimed his employer once said to him are anything to go by: “Just wait till I’m president, I’ll be crueller than my father. You will often remember these words, and yearn for the days of Saddam Hussein.”
Starring Dominic Cooper as both Uday and Latif, the film is directed by Lee Tamahori, best known for his portrayal of violence within New Zealand’s Maori community in Once Were Warriors. The mayhem in that, however, is nothing compared to the savagery in The Devil’s Double. It applies the gangster movie blueprint to an entire country, replacing the Mafia with the Hussein clan, although Uday is far more crazed than anything Coppola or Scorsese have so far conjured up.
In one horrific scene, he uses a carving knife to stab to death Kamel Hannah, his father’s personal pimp, at a party attended by the wife of the recently-deposed Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. The incident is entirely authentic, according to Latif, save for the minor detail that Uday actually used an electric rose pruner that he had at his side. Even so, Latif says the violence has been toned down.
“The movie shows 20 per cent of what really happened, at most,” he says. “On one occasion, in a jail back in ’91, I remember Uday dealing with a Shia prisoner who had been involved in the uprising against Saddam after the first Gulf War. He said: ‘I won’t kill you by the gun,’ and instead put a drill through his head. When he’d finished, he looked around and said: ‘This is what happens to those who stand up against us.’ They killed half the people in that jail, and put the bodies in among those still alive. Then they released the survivors, just so they could tell other Iraqis what they’d seen.”
Latif first met Uday in 1979, when the two were at the Baghdad College High School for Boys, the country’s answer to Eton. The Iraq of that time was a very different place: Saddam, newly in power, was still relatively popular, having used Iraq’s oil money to create one of the Middle East’s most developed countries, while Baghdad was the region’s party capital, full of bars, discos and nightclubs.
Even then, Iraq’s First Family were a law unto themselves. Latif’s teachers learnt this the hard way when Uday first turned up at school, surrounded by five bodyguards. Having turned a blind eye to his habit of throwing chalk at them during lessons, and parking his yellow Porsche in the school’s basketball court, one teacher finally protested when Uday brought a girlfriend into class. “The teacher told Uday this was forbidden in an all-boys school,” recalls Latif. “He was never seen again.”
A keen painter, Latif won Uday’s friendship after drawing a portrait of Saddam, but knew to keep his distance. When university beckoned, he even switched to reading law when learning that Uday had enrolled on the same engineering course.
Then, one day in September 1987, while serving at the front during the Iran-Iraq war, he was whisked by limousine to a palace in Baghdad, where Uday, sat in a white leather armchair and smoking one of his trademark Montecristo No 6 cigars, told him of the top-secret plan to make him his “fiday”. After all, his father had been using one for years. “I want you to be me. Everywhere, always,” he said. It was an order, not a request. When Latif at first refused, he was thrown for days into a blood-encrusted jail cell with no lavatory. When he still protested, Uday threatened to feed his sisters to his pet dogs.
Thus began his secret service-organised “training programme”. He and Uday already bore a sharp resemblance to each other, with the same round eyes, thick eyebrows and slightly curly hair. But nothing was left to chance. To start, there was cosmetic surgery – a cleft added to the chin, and dental treatment to mimic Uday’s bucktoothed grin, which even gave him Uday’s distinctive lisp as well. To be really convincing, though, he also had to study the unique Uday school of deportment, honing, as he puts it, a “supercilious, dictatorial arrogance”.
How to mimic Uday’s childlike giggle, cocky stride and slovenly manners, always sitting slumped rather than straight up. How to greet people with a studied stare, and make his point by gesturing with a revolver. How to cruise around Baghdad in a different Porsche, Ferrari or Lamborghini every day, which also had to match whichever loud designer suit he was wearing. How to cradle a Montecristo between middle and index fingers, and knock back vast quantities of Dimple, the unsophisticated Scotch that was Uday’s favourite. And how, when attending discos, to up the tempo by blasting a few gunshots into the ceiling. For Latif, though, the hardest part of the fakery was played on his own family. He signed a contract saying he would never, on pain of execution, tell anyone that he was Uday’s double; this included his parents, who were told he had gone missing at the front, and whom he was forbidden from seeing again.
At first, being Uday had benefits. Latif was billeted in a five-star apartment with four full-time servants, its own bar, and a wardrobe packed with Uday’s hand-tailored clothes. He was also introduced to Saddam himself, or a man he assumes was him: one scene in the film shows the Iraqi leader playing tennis with his own double, the two impossible to be tol apart. But the scales soon fell from Latif’s eyes as he saw at first hand Uday’s appalling behaviour, which was normally covered up by Iraq’s state-controlled press.
Saddam’s son ran his own dark empire in Iraq, controlling the lucrative underworld smuggling rackets that thrived during the years of UN sanctions. His vast wealth allowed him to buy hundreds of cars, stashed all over Baghdad in underground garages and torched once the US invaded so nobody else could own them. (Uday employed somebody just to scour the internet for photos of new or collectable cars, which were then placed in a ring binder. He employed his own fisherman and two lion-tamers, too.)
He also ran the Iraqi Olympic Committee – the only one in the world that had its own jail, where athletes who did badly in international contests would be tortured using increasingly elaborate methods Uday had found on the internet. Worst of all, though, was his penchant for kerb-crawling around Baghdad.
Like Uday’s request for Latif to become his “fiday”, proposals of a quick night of romance with the president’s son were not negotiable. Dozens of girls would be paraded before him at the Baghdad Boat Club every night, and most would end up in his bedroom. Those who refused were abducted by his bodyguards and raped, first by Uday, and then by his henchmen. (It’s said he never slept with the same girl more than three times.)
Latif chronicles several such incidents in his book I Was Saddam’s Son, including the events of one notorious night at Habbaniya, a resort in Iraq’s western desert. Spotting a woman on honeymoon, Uday dragged her up to his sixth-floor hotel room, where he beat and raped her.
“Afterwards, he comes grinning out of the bedroom, pours himself a brandy and goes on chatting as though nothing had happened,” Latif writes. “Suddenly, we hear a long shrill scream that goes on forever. I dash into the bedroom, and see the door open to the balcony… she jumped from the sixth floor because she couldn’t stand the shame. What could I have done? Uday’s bodyguards, who almost derived more pleasure from their boss’s acts of cruelty than he did himself, would have killed me.”
So what made Uday so crazy? The Devil’s Double doesn’t dwell on this too much, but Latif has theories of his own. For all that Uday’s childhood was spoilt and overindulged, he points out, it was also traumatic.
Saddam, he claims, inducted Uday into the ways of the “family firm” from a young age, taking him to his first public execution aged just five, and, aged ten, showing him videos of regime opponents being tortured. Living up to family expectations was also hard. After all, when your father has already grabbed the titles of President, High Excellency, and Conqueror of All Iraq, there is very little left to achieve.
“This evil man, this gangster, he would cry like a baby when he was drunk, and talk about how his father ignored him,” says Latif. “He was close to his dad, but after he murdered Kamel Hannah [the pimp killed with a rose pruner], Saddam started favouring his brother Qusay to take over from him. At that time Uday also got rid of all his professional bodyguards, and just had pimps and thugs around him. That made things even worse.”
Things got worse for Latif too, as anger over the gassing of the Kurds in 1988 and disastrous 1991 Gulf War defeat made the ruling family more unpopular. He suffered two assassination attempts during public engagements on his boss’s behalf, nearly losing a finger in a grenade blast. When he returned to Baghdad for treatment, however, Uday’s only concern was that he too may have to forfeit a finger if his double’s digit couldn’t be saved. The film eventually depicts Latif escaping Iraq with one of Uday’s former girlfriends, Sarrab, and as the closing credits point out, “the rest is history”.
Minus his double, Uday spent his final years paralysed from the waist down after being shot while out cruising for girls one day, although even that does not seem to have curbed his lust. When US troops searched his various hide-outs after the war, they reportedly found Viagra, porn movies and an HIV testing kit, as well as millions of dollars’ worth of fine wine and a heroin stash.
Latif, who now lives and blogs in Belgium, joined the exiled anti-Saddam opposition, although to this day, he insists the US-led invasion was a mistake, simply replacing one gangster clique with many. “I knew it would put Sunni and Shia and Kurd against each other,” he says. “Now you have lots of people all wanting to behave like Saddam and Uday.”
Nor does he wish ever to return to his home country, whatever rosy claims are made in the West about it now becoming a democracy. Because from his own bitter experience, the problem is not just the thugs who tend to hog power in Iraq, but the willingness of the people to follow them slavishly.
“The problem is not Iraq as a country, but the people. I am sorry to say this, but if you read the history of Iraq, you will see it has been like this for 7,000 years – that is to say,
a–holes, clapping their hands for anyone, and selling their mothers for money. It will take 50 years, maybe more, to change the place.”
The Devil’s Double opens in cinemas on Friday