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
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
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
``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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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