Bride of Saddam, Matched Since Childhood
By Martha Sherrill
She's a clotheshorse. She's a bottle blonde. She's the headmistress of a girls school. She's a jealous wife, and with good reason. She's the mother of a killer. She's her husband's first cousin.
She's Mrs. Saddam Hussein.
Veiled in mystery, totally overshadowed -- behind every megalomaniacal dictator is a woman we hear nothing about -- Sajida Khayrallah has miraculously endured a 32-year marriage to Saddam.
"Our story was like that of many others," the Iraqi president told a women's magazine in the late '70s. But their lavish, violent, clannish lifestyle calls to mind scenes from "The Godfather," Saddam's all-time favorite movie.
Their marriage, like so many in the Arab world, was arranged when Saddam was only 4 or 5 years old. Sajida, the daughter of his uncle Khayrallah, was two years older. They didn't actually meet until Saddam was 21.
Reports vary, but most state that Saddam and Sajida -- a schoolteacher at the time -- were married in 1958. After the Baath party took power in 1963, Saddam returned to Baghdad from exile in Cairo, to take his place in the new regime. He started his career as an interrogator and torturer.
In Baghdad, after he founded the Iraqi secret police, the Husseins were known for being status-conscious and socially mobile. They wore expensive clothes and matching jewelry -- the brilliant stones in his cuff links and her earrings were cut from the same rock. The silk lining of his suits matched the silk of his ties. Sajida, over the years, was drawn to Geneva and Paris to buy Western-style designer clothes and her hair -- brunette at first -- became blonder.
She bore him five children -- two sons and three daughters. Meanwhile, in 1968, Saddam became deputy secretary general of the Baath party, the No. 2 spot in the government; in 1979 he was named president.
Arab leaders are not traditionally open about their personal lives, but when stories about Saddam Hussein's philandering slowly started appearing in newspapers, the president of Iraq released more information about his family life -- as any good politician would. Pictures began to appear of Saddam, the devoted father. Saddam, helping the kids with their homework. Saddam, motorboating with the family on the Tigris.
"The most important thing about marriage," he told Al-Mar'a magazine in 1978, "is that the man must not let the woman feel downtrodden simply because she is a woman and he is a man."
Every year, Sajida threw her husband an extravagant party on his birthday -- April 28, the same day, as it happens, as James Baker's. Hundreds of Iraqi artists would present the ruler with portraits they'd painted of him.
Over time, newspapers reported that Saddam had one special mistress -- Samira Shahbandar. She is described as tall, blond and from an old and distinguished merchant family of Baghdad. At the time Saddam fell for her, Samira was married to somebody else -- Nurredin al-Safi, an Iraqi Airlines official, who quickly agreed to step aside and let the notoriously hotheaded president claim his wife. Safi was later promoted to director of the airline.
Some believe Saddam secretly married Samira without going through the formality of divorcing Sajida. (She is described as Saddam's "second wife" in both the London Daily Telegraph and in the quickie biography of Saddam by Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie.)
In either case, Saddam's relationship with Samira surely strained his family life. Sajida, by all accounts, was overcome with jealousy and humiliation when Saddam began making public appearances with Samira in the late '80s. Her brother Adnan Khayrallah -- also one of Saddam's closest friends -- complained bitterly on her behalf about the open affair. The complaints stopped, though, when Adnan was killed in a helicopter crash attributed to "mechanical failure." (On "60 Minutes" this week, a former Saddam bodyguard admitted planting a bomb on the craft, at the president's bidding.)
Saddam's oldest son, Uday, was also reported to be distressed by the news of his father's mistress. Uday, 26, is a smart businessman, according to some reports, and has already made millions with his company Super Chicken, a food processing chain, and another company called the Wave that makes ice cream.
But he's also ember-tempered, like Dad. Supposedly, Saddam's valet had been a go-between for Saddam and Samira. And so, at a party in honor of Egyptian President Hosni Murbarak's wife in October 1988, Uday bludgeoned and kicked the hapless servant to death. Uday, it seems, had felt his eventual inheritance was jeopardized by the love affair.
Since there were many witnesses to the killing, and because it became so public, Saddam announced that Uday would be put on trial for murder. But -- why isn't this turn of events surprising? -- the parents of the murdered man begged that Saddam's son be given clemency.
And so he was. Uday was then banished temporarily to Switzerland, according to the London Independent, until he was deported for repeated drunken brawling. He has returned to Iraq and is running the Iraqi Olympic Committee.
Mrs. Saddam Hussein, meanwhile, having lived through eight years of war with Iran, is probably no big fan of Bunker Life. Last November, the London Times reported that Sajida was believed to be in Switzerland. Some said she was shopping. Others wrote that she was depositing money and gold ingots stolen from Kuwait in Saddam's Swiss bank account.
Now Sajida is believed to be far from the rubble in Baghdad. She is said to have left Iraq hours before the bombing began, and is relaxing on the coast of Mauritania, in the capital city of Nouakchott. Presumably, she's got the number of the Swiss bank account close at hand.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post