The Double Dealer

Ed Caesar
The Sunday Times, 23rd January 2011


 

Latif Yahia, who claims to have been a body double for Saddam Husseinís sadistic son, Uday, has just had his life story turned into a Hollywood film. But is Yahia all he seems?

There are some life stories that were just made for the movies. Latif Yahia’s, surely, is one of them. It is because of his extraordinary tale that I am now on the set of The Devil’s Double — a $20m adaptation of his autobiography — under a blazing sun in Malta. The film is billed as a Scarface-style epic, and recounts how Yahia was forced to become the body double of Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son, Uday, in 1987, but eventually escaped the cruel regime to find a new life in Europe.

When I arrive at the shoot, however, Yahia’s story is causing a few headaches. For a start, both Uday and Latif’s characters are played by Dominic Cooper, a British actor best known for his roles in An Education and Mamma Mia. This is, in itself, a tricky proposition, requiring careful forethought and fancy computer software. Moreover, when we arrive on a desolate Maltese cliff-top, the Kiwi director, Lee Tamahori, must somehow find a way to make the azure sea look like an Iraqi desert. No problem, says his special effects supervisor, they will paint in the background in the editing suite.

Most importantly, Tamahori needs to convince the audience that this getaway sequence – in which Latif and his prostitute girlfriend, Sarrab (played by the devastating Ludivine Sagnier), run out of petrol in the desert, find two horses in a burned-out farmhouse, and escape on horseback – is all the work of the same actors. In fact, stunt doubles will be used for the riding action. For now, these doubles idle behind the cameras, wearing the same costumes as Cooper and Sagnier, and drink espressos while the stars deliver their hokey dialogue to the director’s satisfaction.

“Do you ride?” asks Cooper.

“Like the wind,” says Sagnier.

“Cut!” says Tamahori. “Do you think the horses should have their halters on? Can we lose the halters?”

Observing this organised mischief from a safe distance is Yahia himself. He has been on set for much of the shoot, watching as his life story is immortalised by Hollywood. His presence is unnerving. (Watching Uday’s original double watching a stunt double stand in for the man playing both himself and his former double? It’s like walking through a hall of mirrors.)  

Certainly, the actors have been distracted. “It’s strange having him hanging around," says Sagnier. "We think we’re filming fiction and then suddenly the reality walks in.”

Welcome or not, Yahia — a chain-smoker who carries a silver-topped cane, and habitually wears immaculate three-piece suits, paisley ties and wraparound sunglasses — has been in Malta for weeks, hobnobbing with the stars every night in Valetta’s best hotel. And, while he may look every inch the film-noir villain, he is, in person, voluble and entertaining.

He certainly has an astonishing tale to tell. In his three books, Yahia describes how he attended the prestigious Baghdad College for boys, where he had the misfortune not only to be in the same class as Saddam’s spoilt and vicious elder son, Uday, but also to share a remarkable physical likeness to him.

One fateful September day in 1987, he was recalled from the front line of the Iran-Iraq war and summoned to Uday’s palace where Uday asked him to become his fidai, or body double. Yahia politely refused, and was subsequently imprisoned and tortured. His family was also threatened with death. What choice did he have? He accepted. He was trained to speak and behave like Uday, and his face was altered by a surgeon to look more like his new master’s. As the blurb for the movie says, Yahia had to “play the part, or suffer the consequences”.

The job, however, wasn’t all bad. Sure, there was the occasional assassination attempt — Yahia claims that, in total, he has survived 12 attempts on his life, observing that he is “more than a cat” in this respect. He also suffered from what a psychiatrist might loosely term “identity issues”. On the positive side, he was surrounded by opulence beyond his wildest dreams, and spent much of his time going to debauched orgies.

After four and a half years of attending football matches on Uday’s behalf, being shot at by Iraqi Shia rebels, and watching Saddam’s son rape and murder countless women, Yahia made a mistake. He was chatted up by a girlfriend of Uday, incurring his grave displeasure. After another spell in prison, Latif realised his life was in peril. He escaped to the north of the country, where, after some time as a prisoner of Kurdish rebels, he left Iraq with the help of the American CIA, and travelled to Vienna. He arrived in Austria in March, 1992.

Incredible story, right? Yahia has plenty more where that came from. When I interviewed him in Malta, he told me that his life since leaving Iraq had been an even bumpier rollercoaster. The edited highlights of his European adventure include making 25 million dollars through diamond smuggling; losing it; falling in love with a Saudi princess; being imprisoned and tortured by the CIA; being chased down the Edgware Road by Iraqi secret agents; being offered, and refusing, a ministerial post in the post-Saddam Iraqi government; and suffering another close call when his brother – apparently in the pay of the “Iraqis and Americans” – stabbed him in the chest with a poison needle in Cyprus.

But more of that later. Yahia's central claim is that he was Uday's body double. This story forms the bedrock of the three books he has written since leaving Iraq, and countless subsequent media engagements. Indeed, since he came to the West, Yahia has given interviews to high-profile inquisitors such as John Simpson and David Frost. He was particularly in demand when Uday and his younger brother Qusay Hussein were killed by Allied forces in 2003.

Last November, he appeared at the Cambridge Union, where, as a self-styled "human rights activist", he took part in a debate with, among others, the journalist Peter Hitchens. And this week, watched by the glamour-pusses of Hollywood, the film of his life will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the snowy mountains of Utah.

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There is a joke among journalists that some stories are “too good to check”. But some are too weird not to. Yahia’s falls into the second category. It was for that reason that, on a bright summer’s day at a cafe on Kensington High Street, I met Haytham Ajmaya, a 48-year-old Iraqi expat.

Ajmaya defected from Iraq in 1998 with help from the British government, who gave him political asylum and financial assistance in return for information about Hussein’s regime. Before that, he was a key member of Uday's inner circle - a group whose principal aim, he says, was to satisfy their master's every whim. Now, he runs an import business from West London. 

“I didn’t want to be friends with Uday, but I was,” Ajmaya says. “You didn’t choose. I used to get him cars and things — he called me a ‘special assistant’. There were five or six of us from school who were friends with him. I can tell you, 100%, this guy, Latif, was not at school with Uday; 100%, he was not his body double… His story is rubbish.”

So who was Yahia? “He was a middle-class guy from the same neighbourhood as us,” says Ajmaya.

Did Uday know him? “Yes, but only because… when Kuwait was invaded [in 1990], he kept hearing from these girlfriends of his, who said, ‘You passed my house in your Mercedes, and you didn’t say hello.’ Uday used to have a blue Mercedes 560 at that time, which looked quite distinctive. This happened two or three times. Then Uday got a call from one of his father’s bodyguards, saying the same thing — that he had seen him in the same area.

“So the bell was ringing at this time. Then, after that, we received a phone call from a military leader, very senior, in Kuwait, saying that Uday has come to his base, and he had helped him remove some stolen items from Kuwait. And, at this time, Uday arrested Latif for impersonating him. He was wearing the same suit, the same rings, everything.”

Ajmaya’s story is given extra colour by a letter addressed to Uday Hussein, dated October 21, 1990, detailing Yahia’s arrest for impersonating Uday, and the subsequent investigation into his odd behaviour. The letter was leaked to this newspaper by another member of Uday’s inner circle (and a friend of Ajmaya) named Dhafir Mohammed Jabir. In it, an investigating officer explains to Hussein that Yahia “confessed to impersonating you” in order to pick up women. The document also notes that Latif admitted to being “on the run from military service” for six months.

Both Jabir and Ajmaya are adamant that Uday never had a body double. Ajmaya says that Uday even had a chance to read some of Yahia’s first book, which was sent to him by a friend from Europe, and translated. Apparently, he found his former detainee’s claims very funny. “Uday called him a wanker,” says Ajmaya.

Who to believe? When Yahia was first confronted with Jabir’s document, he employed what I now realise is a trademark tactic — he played the man, not the ball. Jabir, he said, was a “pimp”. And, when I spoke to Ajmaya recently, he admitted that Yahia’s accusation may well be true — Uday had a barbarous appetite for women, which his cronies helped him satisfy — but he also said it should not diminish Jabir’s evidence.

To test the claims made by Uday’s two former confidants, I spoke to Raad al-Sheikh, a private guard at Saddam’s presidential palace from 1989 to 2003, who is now in exile in Amman. Al-Sheikh says he has only heard about Yahia through the media. Indeed, he never saw Uday’s supposed fidai in the 14 years he worked as a bodyguard, even though his job involved guarding Saddam’s sons. Uday, he says, didn’t use body doubles, and moved about with relative freedom. “[Latif] was never, to my knowledge, employed in any official capacity to act as a body double for Uday Hussein, even if there is a strong physical likeness between him and Uday,” says al-Sheikh.

Meanwhile, Saddam’s former doctor, Ala Bashir — who now works as an artist in Britain, but who was formerly a plastic surgeon at the Ibn Sina hospital in Baghdad, where Yahia claims to have had his face reconstructed — says that he never performed any of the procedures described in The Devil’s Double. “I was a surgeon there from 1983/1984 to the fall of the regime,” says Bashir. “I should have known if someone had done this surgery. To my knowledge, no-one ever did. I performed surgery on Uday many times, and, to my knowledge, he never had a body double.”

Yahia, typically, also calls the surgeon “a pimp”, attributing his opinions to “skeletons” in Bashir’s past. And it is, one imagines, possible that these Iraqi expats have private reasons not to acknowledge Yahia’s story. But it is surprising that all four men denounce the story independent of each other.

The trouble is, the truth about Saddam’s Iraq has always been tricky to penetrate.

Dr Toby Dodge, a professor of international politics and an expert on Iraq at the University of London, has no concrete proof about Yahia’s claims, but is “highly sceptical”. Dodge says the story’s endurance is symptomatic of “the fluidity of pre-2003 Iraqi history. Before 2003, there were very few [Western intelligence] human sources on the ground in Iraq. It’s possible to believe almost anything about that regime, which is widely perceived to have been the personification of evil. There was so much myth-making, which is why this guy may be able to peddle his story.”

I called one of those human sources — Bob Baer, the CIA’s celebrated former case officer in Iraq, and the model for George Clooney’s character in the film Syriana. If Yahia had worked for Uday, and had then, as he claims, escaped to the West with the CIA’s assistance, it is thought Baer would have known.

“I have friends who used to hang out with [Uday and Qusay] back then, and I never heard one credible story about them having body doubles,” says Baer.

“And, when you think about it, why would they want them? They were just bad boys who ran about town. What does a body double get you, when you own the town already?”

What about Yahia’s claim to have been debriefed by the CIA, or to have been approached by the agency in 1992 in order to join the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the official opposition in exile? “Let me tell you this, I knew every single asset. If this guy was in the inner circle, we would have never let him go,” says Baer. “And we never had anything like that.”

Other CIA case officers who were involved at the genesis of the INC have no recollection of Yahia either. The man himself, however, is adamant. When I confronted him with the allegation that his story was bogus, Yahia replied with gusto: “Yes, I was Uday’s double. Uday didn’t have friends: he had pimps, drug dealers, hangers on, etc. Either I am psychic to know about inside palaces, bunkers and all the rest of the places… or I was actually there. My story has been confirmed by Mossad, the CIA, German intelligence, and so on. If you want to believe these people, then I have fooled the world’s media for the past 19 years… Print what you like. I know the truth and that is all that matters.”

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Is it possible that Yahia has hoodwinked the world for two decades? If so, why? His background in Iraq is fiendish to check, and his post-Iraq biography is only slightly less opaque. Yahia has lived, to put it mildly, a peripatetic existence in Europe. Having arrived in Austria in 1992, he has since lived in England, Norway, Germany, Ireland and Cyprus, often under assumed names. Yahia claims to have had a trawler business in Norway; to have run a detective agency from Ireland and a multimillion-pound diamond business from Austria; and to have gained a PhD in international law. The CIA, he says, has tracked his every step.

It would take a lifetime to verify each and every claim, but some are evidently porous. For instance: Yahia says that when he came to London in 1995, Iraqi agents attempted to assassinate him while his car was stuck in traffic on the Edgware Road. The incident was reported in the British press and abroad, but no charges were ever brought. Indeed, a man who assisted Yahia with legal representation during his time in London, and who wishes to remain anonymous, said that “no evidence” ever emerged that Yahia had endured an assassination attempt.

What would be the point of fabricating the incident?

“During the time I knew him, he would do anything that would get him money, and anything that would get him a profile,” he says. “Everyone who was trying to escape Hussein’s regime and wanted asylum tended to exaggerate a bit. But he wanted to make a star out of himself on the back of his services to Uday, so he had to make the story worthy of publishers’ interest.”

If Yahia had only been after publicity, one could forgive him a few porkies. In the 1990s, there were plenty of exiled Iraqis telling and selling tall tales in London. Their duplicity had far longer-lasting consequences for their homeland. Indeed, of all the bad information that came out of Iraq in the mid-1990s, Yahia’s seems to be the least consequential: one of the reasons, perhaps, why his bluff has not been called. But his story has also become an industry – of books, public appearances, and now, a movie – which has sustained a dark character. 

Of all the inquiries I made about Yahia, the testimony of his ex-wife, Joanna Cunningham, was the most troubling. Yahia moved to Dublin in 1997, and met Cunningham in a nightclub the following January. At the time, she was a 28-year-old single mother who worked for an Irish trade union. He introduced himself as Khalid al-Kubaisi, an Iraqi army pilot with “business interests” in Ireland. Cunningham says she was swept off her feet. To the horror of her family, she and Yahia were married three weeks later, at a registry office.

Within weeks, however, the marriage was unravelling. First, Yahia revealed his true identity to her. Then he gave her his book, and told her his story about being Uday’s body double. Two weeks later, his Iraqi wife, a woman named Bushra, turned up at their front door, asking whether having two wives “was legal in Ireland”. Within six weeks, claims Cunningham, the marriage had become abusive.

“He beat the shit out of me,” she alleges. “He used to say to me, ‘I will never hit you in the face, because our neighbours will never know what is going on in this house.’ Once, he handcuffed me to a chair, took out his gun, went out and fired it in the back garden, and then made me name all the boyfriends I’d ever had. It was terrifying. I knew, very early on, that I had to get rid of this guy, but I didn’t know how.”

Eventually, she did find a way to get rid of Yahia, but he was not, she says, one to take no for an answer. She claims that he threatened “numerous times” that if she ever left him, he would rape her nine-year-old daughter. On one occasion, Cunningham claims, Yahia beat her so viciously that she began to lose consciousness. She retaliated by hitting him with a teacup on his forehead — an injury which gave him a nasty gash and sent him to hospital. When I met Yahia in Malta, he claimed the scar was a remnant of an “assassination attempt”.

Cunningham has had a barring order against Yahia since 2000, but she still fears him. And, while her testimony is graphic, it is not entirely unexpected. Yahia himself admits that he beat women when he first came to Europe — “I was still behaving a little like Uday, then,” he says. Indeed, Cunningham says that the 10 months he claims to have spent being “tortured by the CIA” in an Austrian prison was actually a sentence he received for domestic abuse. The Austrian criminal files on this matter are not available to the public, so it is impossible to verify the claim. Yahia was also reprimanded by the police in Ireland for possessing illegal firearms.

Significantly, Cunningham says she always found Yahia’s claims about Uday to be “fishy”. “If he was who he said he was, why was there not one photo of him and Uday, or one bit of evidence?” she asks.

Now, Yahia appears to divide his time between Ireland and Cyprus. He has another Irish wife, Karen — a jolly soul who accompanied him to the set of The Devil’s Double in Malta.

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An Irish judge once said of Yahia that “I am not satisfied to believe literally anything that [he] tells me”. But on the set of The Devil’s Double, I had kept an open mind. It soon became clear, however, that the film-makers were ambivalent about the factual value of Yahia’s tale.

Michael John Fedun, the movie’s amiable Dutch-Canadian producer, told me that he and his colleagues came across Yahia’s book seven years ago and were immediately struck by the “strength of the story”. They cut a deal with Yahia for the film rights, but their “approach to making that film took its own creative course… How literal do we take things? It’s sort of grown into an interpretation of what Latif went through.”

The film’s director, Lee Tamahori, was adamant that The Devil’s Double was “not history… not a biopic”. He then waxed philosophical when pressed on how faithful he was staying to Yahia’s story. “There’s no truth in film,” he said, while sipping a beer in his trailer. “The minute you have an actor play a part, there’s no truth… It’s a very murky world, what happened with Latif. The more I went into it, the more I didn’t really want to tell the truth of Latif’s story, because we don’t really know what that is. There’s a certain truth out there, but it’s driven by Latif… In a way, the more I was able to retreat from accuracy, the better the story got. I really wanted to tell the story of an out-of-control, opulent family in the Middle East... It’s a gangster movie.”

Fedun added that the plot of the movie is not faithful to Yahia’s version of events. Yet it is still billed as a "true story", or, in some publicity material, a “real story". The main characters are called Latif Yahia and Uday Hussein. There is no doubt that, however it veers from his stated account, The Devil’s Double is based on Yahia’s life as Uday's double.

When I confronted Fedun with my grave doubts about Yahia, he was surprisingly unruffled. “For our purposes, it doesn’t matter at a certain point what people say,” he said. “I’ve heard both sides — people who believe him, and people who don’t. It’s irrelevant to us… We’ve taken elements from his life, and created a compelling narrative. We’re making a feature film, which is a work of fiction — based on his life story.”

As for Yahia, when he arrives in his tuxedo to attend the world premiere of The Devil’s Double at Sundance, it’s unlikely he will be challenged about these nuances of interpretation. Instead, he will be asked how it feels to see his life on screen. He will reply, one imagines, in much the same way he did to me in Malta: “I smile — because I am alive, and Uday, he is buried.”

 

 


 

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