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Frmer NW Director's Book: Excerpt and 1st Chapter
The New York Times Magazine
1 October 2000

Inside Saddam's Court 

The food was flown in from Paris, tested for poisons and sampled by a taster. A doctor checked 
visitors for germs. Women were treated like towels, to be used and discarded. 


The Egyptian belly dancers jiggled across the stage, shaking like bowls of crème brûlèe. A quartet 
of clarinet players wailed themselves into a dither. The drummer thrashed his cymbals and snares. 
It was a typical night at the Hunting Club, the private cabaret for Baghdad's elite. With a 
difference: normally the band had the audience on its feet, clapping and whistling. But not 
tonight. On Thursday nights we sat glued to our seats, sipping our drinks and checking our watches. 
We were waiting for Saddam. 

Sometime between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. he appeared in the doorway. His oiled black hair, brush 
mustache and rheumy-looking eyes had not yet earned the instant, global recognition they would 
after he sent his armies into Kuwait, set wells afire and terrorized the world with the threat of 
chemical weapons. In 1974, few Americans outside the Middle East knew his name. To Washington, 
however, he was someone to track as he tightened his grip on power. 

I watched Saddam move deliberately through the crowd. With his gold Rolex watch, French cuffs and 
entourage trailing behind him, he evoked nothing less than an expertly tailored, well-barbered 
gangster. He brimmed with casual self-confidence, the same smiling image so ubiquitous on TV. We, 
his senior ministers, scientists, army generals and party faithful, so desultorily sipping our 
Scotches only a moment before, rose from our tables, obsequiously offering applause. Gliding 
through the club, Saddam returned a half-smile, a nod or a brief wave, soaking us up with his onyx 
eyes, betraying nothing. In the unlikely event that he missed anything, security cameras, watching 
through pinholes in the walls, got it all. 

The Hunting Club was Saddam's private preserve. He personally approved the guest list, personally 
managed the décor. He picked the entertainment and went over the reports supplied by his private 
police on the patrons. Most of us would spend hours, or even days, trying to decipher his gestures 
on these nights. Did he smile our way? Did he seem pleased to see us or annoyed? We lived in a 
gilded cage. 

I watched Saddam and his entourage take their seats at the front row of tables for drinks and 
dinner. Everything, of course, had been screened by Saddam's own taster, who led a worrisome life. 
If he intercepted a poison, he could die a terrible death. If the president developed a cramp, he 
might be arrested and the entire kitchen staff threatened with death. The likelihood that Saddam 
would eat tainted food was highly remote, however. Most of it was flown in daily from Paris, where 
a special embassy detail purchased the best beef, lamb, lobster and shrimp. Then it was sent to 
technicians who employed multimillion-dollar machines to check for poisons, radiation and even 
trace elements of metals, like mercury, lead or arsenic. The same went for Saddam's toilet 
articles, clothes and the black dye for his hair. The Iraqi Embassies in London and Paris employed 
men of Saddam's exact size to shop for his wardrobe. 

Saddam had a terrible fear, perhaps paranoia, about germs. A doctor was always stationed outside 
his office to examine visitors. Even the eyes, ears and mouths of his closest aides were examined 
for signs of disease. No one was permitted to touch Saddam, unless it was an occasion carefully 
choreographed for television. Those who forgot or simply didn't know were beaten beyond the 
camera's eye. Although he was a nominal Muslim, Saddam permitted only Christians to work on his 
housekeeping staff, convinced that they were cleaner than his own people. 

Under Saddam's rule, the grounds of the Republican Palace spread like an inkblot, swallowing up 
office buildings, homes, shops, restaurants, gas stations and even a hospital, turning the palace 
grounds into a small city. It was an armed fortress. Checkpoints began several blocks from the 
presidential grounds, the site of Saddam's two-story, columned, white marble headquarters. On my 
first day in residence there, I was directed to drive my new Mercedes onto concrete tracks over an 
open pit and ordered to step out. Security men checked under the car, opened the hood and trunk, 
looked under the seats and rifled the glove compartment. The security checks would slack off only 
slightly in the ensuing weeks, as the guards began to recognize my face. Yet knowing that their 
jobs, not to mention their lives, were on the line if an assassin or terrorist gained entrance to 
the grounds, they never completely relaxed. I soon heard that in the early days a few arrogant 
officials had tried to bully their way through and had been quickly cut down with a few bursts of 
automatic rifle fire. Far from being upset, Saddam awarded the guards medals. 

My education in presidential protocol began right away, with the arrival of my "cleaning ladies." 
Both were far from ordinary. In fact, they were young, beautiful and flirtatious. It didn't take 
much digging to get the story behind these women. They were all "hired personally by the boss," a 
neighbor told me one night, referring of course to Saddam. Some had been his mistresses, some he 
just liked to keep around. As he tired of them, they were removed from his inner sanctum and made 
available to others. Saddam's women were everywhere in the palace, the neighbor whispered. They 
were Saddam's eyes and ears - in addition to the microphones hidden in the lamps and walls of our 
apartments. Some of them were given clerical or administrative titles, though they were basically 
no-show or make-work jobs. Saddam had other mistresses as well among the wives of cabinet members. 

Over the coming weeks, I began to hear darker rumors about Saddam and his women. It was well known, 
for example, that Saddam was extremely aggressive, culling women from the crowd, coercing them into 
sex and then discarding them. He used them like towels, passing them on to aides and other senior 
officials - generously, he thought. 

Saddam's favorites by far, I was told, were virgins, probably because of his fear of disease. He 
would spot a young woman in a hotel, say, and instruct his security detail to procure her. The 
saddest story I heard concerned women who came to the palace gates to petition for information on 
fathers, brothers or husbands missing at the front. If Saddam liked their looks, a signal went out 
to security to follow up. 

One woman went to see Saddam early in the Iranian war, after her father was killed. She was 
destitute and begging for help. Two weeks later, she was called back for some formality concerning 
her benefits. But instead of an appointment at the palace, she was directed to one of Saddam's 
secluded downtown facilities. When she arrived, two women were waiting for her with hairbrushes and 
makeup kits. As the situation dawned on her, she was mortified. If she refused Saddam's advances, 
she feared she would end up dead on a side road on the outskirts of Baghdad. So she submitted to 
the makeover. Then the guards came and took her to a waiting car. The Mercedes delivered her to a 
side door at the presidential palace, where an armed guard led her through the corridors to a room 
upstairs. She was told to undress and lie on the bed. The room was furnished like a hotel, with one 
large bed and a side table with a reading lamp. The guard waited until she was naked on the bed, 
then left, locking the door behind him. 

The minutes passed like eternity, she said. Finally, Saddam appeared from an adjoining room, naked. 
He looked at her with glazed eyes and a wooden face. Without a word, he came to the bed, got on top 
of her and satisfied himself. Finished, he went back into the adjoining room and shut the door. He 
had not spoken a word. A few minutes later, as she lay crying, a guard came into the room, placed 
an envelope with 5,000 Iraqi dinars (about $15,000) on the bedside table and ordered her to get 
dressed. The rape and payoff were insult enough. Almost as disturbing was the memory of Saddam's 
yellow, lifeless eyes. "They were the eyes of death," she told me. "He looked at me as if I were a 
corpse. There was not a hint of humanity or warmth in them." 

Excerpted from "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological 
Weapons Agenda," a memoir by Khidhir Hamza, to be published next month by Scribner. Copyright $; 
2000 by Khidhir Hamza.

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