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Saddam's wife in gold ... and exile
By Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times
December 15, 2003

SAMIRA Shahbandar, Saddam Hussein's wife, gave the following interview to The Sunday Times before the ousted Iraqi leader was captured.

THE fashionable blonde sat alone at a table in the back of a restaurant north of Beirut in Lebanon. She had hazel eyes and wore a classically tailored trouser suit, gold earrings and a striking gold necklace. There could be no mistaking the attraction of Samira Shahbandar. Striking though she is, in Lebanon she is little-known. But in Iraq she is a legend.

Samira is the woman who so fascinated Saddam Hussein, reviled as one of the world's most evil dictators, that he kidnapped her husband, forced a divorce and persuaded her to marry him.

When Hussein and his regime fell, she fled abroad, with $US5 million ($6.74 million) in cash, a box of gold bars and a false passport, and has since been living quietly under an assumed name. She was reported to have gone to Russia, but The Sunday Times traced her, through a nephew who remained in Baghdad, to Beirut.

She agreed to talk to an intermediary, and spoke about her life with Saddam. It is a relationship that amazingly continues, even as he is in hiding, pursued by coalition forces. They are, she says, in regular contact.

She recalls how when the war came, Hussein was optimistic. ``We were prepared for the war,'' Samira recalled. ``Saddam thought we would win. He believed we were prepared.''

As coalition forces raced into the country, the dictator organised a series of safe houses for Samira. She was taken to various homes in Baghdad and north of the capital. The first was in Mansour, a wealthy Baghdad neighbourhood, where she stayed with an elderly couple who were friends of her mother. She stayed there a week.

After that, she and their teenaged son Ali went to Diyala, near Baquba, where they had to endure the 49C heat in a house without airconditioning. She remembers listening to the increasingly ``bad news'' about the progress of the Americans.

She moved several times, always taken by Hussein's bodyguards, who would show up without warning. In the third week of the war, they moved her back to Mansour and Hussein came to see her.

She told him that she had heard from the radio that things were not good. ``Saddam said, `It's all bull. We have a plan to trap them in Baghdad','' she recalled.

But as the Americans surged into the centre of the capital, Hussein crumbled. ``He came to me very depressed and sad,'' she said. ``He took me to the next room and cried. He knew he had been betrayed.

``He told me not to be afraid. He kissed Ali and said the same, `Don't be afraid'.'' It was the last day he appeared in public in the city.

Eventually, his former bodyguards came with an old pick-up truck and drove her and her daughters towards the Syrian border. Ali followed behind in a taxi.

They stopped in the desert. All she remembers is a small restaurant and a tiny mosque. That is where she saw Hussein for the last time.

He drove up in an ordinary car, disguised as a Bedouin tribesman. It was 12 days after his statue had been pulled down in Baghdad. She did not recognise him at first, then ran to him.

``He said, `Don't ask me how I will be. I want you to be safe'.'' He gave her a briefcase with $US5 million in cash.

One of the men with him put a heavy box in her car, and Hussein told her: ``This one you can use when you are really in need.''

He held her hand, she said, and put it on his heart, and told her everything would be all right.

Samira said she cried all the way to Damascus, where she stayed for eight days before travelling on to Lebanon. When she opened the heavy box, she found that it contained 10kg of gold bars to supplement her fortune. At the border between Lebanon and Syria she was given a Lebanese passport that listed her first name as ``Hadija''. The passport of Hussein's son, Ali, now gives his name as ``Hassan''.

Two decades ago, when they met, Hussein was a peasant boy from Tikrit, in northern Iraq, who had muscled his way to power and married, as is the Arab tradition, his first cousin, Sajida. She bore him five children. Samira was the child of an aristocratic Baghdad family.

She had married an Iraqi pilot and had a son and daughter; but the marriage was not a happy one by the time Hussein's eye fell on her.

Hussein went on a school picnic for his youngest daughter, encountered Samira, and was captivated by her beauty.

``He came to my house two weeks after my husband had travelled abroad,'' she said. ``This was the most powerful man in Iraq and he was holding a bouquet of flowers and chocolates. He was unable to speak. When I saw that, I thought to myself, `this is a man that really loves me'.''

Her father considered Hussein's family unworthy of his daughter. Nevertheless, Samira became his mistress.

Hussein kidnapped her husband, held him for several days and made clear he wanted the man's wife. The husband's agreement to step aside was not without benefits. He was made head of Iraqi Airways.

After they married, she became a gypsy, moving from house to house with him.

``He was a good husband,'' she said, although she was well aware of the dangers of crossing him. ``I'm not afraid of dying, if it is my time to die. I did know that if I said no to Saddam, he might kill me.''

In the early 1980s, she gave birth to a boy, Ali, who is now Hussein's only surviving son. He too is living under an assumed name in Beirut. Hussein's marriage to, and affection for, Samira enraged one of his sons by Sajida. Uday, his eldest son, blamed a valet for helping the relationship flourish between Hussein and Samira.

Qusay, Hussein's other son and his heir apparent, was more restrained. Samira's son by Hussein was never publicly acknowledged, and Hussein's other family hated him.

Not that everything was smooth for the second wife of the tyrant. ``He loved the army. The army meant more to him than anything in his life,'' Samira said. ``He thought that his family should be the first to go into the army. One of the only times he would not listen to me is when I tried to get my relatives out. He did not accept.''

Her son by her former husband went abroad and did not wish to return for military service. Hussein ordered him to be banished for good. ``It was the worst day of my life: my husband told me I could not speak to or see my son again.''

Despite the obvious horrors of Iraq under Hussein, Samira makes few apologies for him. For all her sophistication, she seems not to know how desperate the condition of the ordinary Iraqis was.

``He made mistakes, and we argued,'' she said. ``But he told me that early on he realised the Iraqi people are such that if you give them an apple they will demand a basket of fruit.''

They had to be treated toughly, she seems to say. Yet she sees no contradiction in also boasting that Hussein ``loved to buy me gold jewellery''. Hussein and his regime were notorious for lavish palaces and extravagant lifestyles.

Sajida and her three daughters by Hussein are thought to have escaped to Syria only to be later sent back to Iraq. They are now thought to be being sheltered by tribal leaders in northern areas of the country.

Hussein's two older sons by Sajida, Uday and Qusay, were killed last July by US forces who surrounded a house where they had taken refuge in Mosul. And the hunt for Hussein, who has a $US25 million reward on his head, remains intense.

Samira claims, however, that she is in regular contact with him. ``If he cannot say something in detail on the telephone, I know I will receive a letter in two to three days giving me an explanation,'' she said.

She does not think he will ever be tried by the new international war crimes tribunal, announced last week for Iraq.

``If I know my husband, he will not be captured,'' she said.

The Sunday Times

The Australian

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