The veiled existence of Sagida Hussein


London -- Behind one of the world's most instantly recognizable men is a reclusive and enigmatic woman.

For about three decades, Sagida Hussein has remained in the background while her husband, Saddam, ascended to power in Iraq. Mrs. Hussein, who is thought to be in her mid-50s, has carefully combined high living with a low profile.

But the Persian Gulf war has blown her cover, with the international press now prying into her and the Iraqi president's personal lives: most notably, her extravagances and his infidelities.

Mrs. Hussein's current whereabouts are not known. Various newspapers have reported that she fled Iraq, and she has supposedly been sighted in Zambia, Mauritania, Algeria and Switzerland. All such reports have been denied by the governments of these countries.

Accounts vary on how Sagida and Saddam, who are cousins, came to marry -- and even when the marriage took place.

Mr. Hussein told an Iraqi women's magazine that the marriage was arranged when he was a small boy.

But one Iraqi -- a critic of Mr. Hussein -- said that the marriage was arranged as a reward for Mr. Hussein's help in killing an enemy of Sagida's father. According to Dr. Sahib Alhakim, secretary of the Organization of Human Rights in Iraq, Mr. Hussein's uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, allowed Saddam to marry his daughter after he killed the man. Dr. Alhakim believes that this marriage gave Mr. Hussein a higher social status, which allowed him to rise in Iraqi politics.

However the marriage came about, Mrs. Hussein has since borne her husband two sons, Uday and Louai, and three daughters,Raghd, Rana and Hala. She has earned herself a reputation for extravagance and vanity, with interests limited to designer clothes and jewels.

She is even reported to have paid $700 million for the Empress of Iran's jewelry collection.

In her personal life, Mrs. Hussein has had to endure her husband's womanizing, a mistress who threatened to usurp her place and the suspected murder of her brother by her husband.

Tales of Mr. Hussein's philandering became so widespread in the last several years that official steps were taken to counter them. The wife who had remained so resolutely in the background was pushed into the public eye to stand next to her husband and appear in carefully posed happy family portraits.

"Up to about three or four years ago, nobody had ever heard of her," says John Bulloch, author of a biography of the Iraqi president, "Saddam's War."

"Suddenly she surfaced. They started giving her publicity. It began in the women's magazines in Baghdad. Suddenly you got odd articles about the family, and then a few individual ones about her at events like the Red Crescent [the Islamic version of the Red Cross]. She wasn't exactly high profile, but much more so than she was before."

Even so, her role was limited to purely social functions. "She took no part in any political meetings," says Mr. Bulloch. "She was never around when they were under way. As you know, Arabs normally don't allow women that sort of role."

The marriage went through its rockiest phase a couple of years ago when Mr. Hussein's eye alighted on Samira Shahbandar, a tall blonde married to an Iraqi Airways official. After a phone call from the smitten president, the official prudently divorced his wife (his reward: promotion to director of the airline) and Mr. Hussein stepped in, according to "Saddam Hussein and The Crisis in the Gulf" by Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie.

There is disagreement about whether Mr. Hussein took Mrs. Shahbandar as his second wife, as Ms. Miller and Ms. Mylroie report. Whether or not they married, Mrs. Hussein was said to be furious at the liaison. She turned for support to her brother, Defense Minister Adnan Khairallah, and her son Uday.

Their reaction may have cost her brother his life and turned her son into a murderer. Adnan, who complained about Mr. Hussein's affair, died in a helicopter accident in 1989. The crash was engineered by Saddam, according to one of his former bodyguards, who appeared on "60 Minutes" last month.

Meanwhile, the Husseins' son Uday bludgeoned one of his father's servants to death, because he believed the valet was acting as a go-between for Mr. Hussein and his mistress, according to authors Miller and Mylroie. Uday was arrested for the murder, but was eventually freed by his father.

Of his mother, there has been no recent news. Even with her country in crisis, Sagida Hussein is continuing to lead a veiled existence.

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