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Sunday, April 20, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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As Saddam’s birthday nears, a phone call to shake Iraqis

By TIM ARANGO

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BAGHDAD >> There haven’t been any Saddam sightings, yet. But he is still in the house, some Iraqis believe, and was heard from just this week.

Saddam Hussein would have turned 74 Thursday, and a steady stream of people visited his grave site near his hometown, Tikrit, passing out sweets to fellow mourners and curiosity-seekers.

But to some Iraqis he will never die.

Since the former dictator’s execution in December 2006, numerous conspiracy theories of the Elvis variety have percolated. And with precision timing on the eve of Saddam’s birthday, a new YouTube video landed that depicted an actual recent phone call between a member of Iraq’s Parliament and a man who claimed to be Saddam, whose voice and inflection so resembled that of the former dictator’s that it even caused pause among those who are convinced that Saddam is dead.

“When I heard Saddam’s voice on the Internet, I cried so much,” said Ahmed Kamil, 43, who was visiting the grave site. “I felt that I was dreaming.”

One cultural remnant of Iraq’s years of totalitarianism, when ordinary citizens lived in fear of a dictator’s secret police, is a tendency for rumors and conspiracy theories to flourish. Last year, after the parliamentary elections, a rumor that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been assassinated lived for days until al-Maliki appeared on television. With Saddam, like Elvis, there will probably always be a tiny thread of society that doubts the official version of events.

“The U.S. should dig up his grave and check for his DNA,” one commenter wrote Thursday on the Arabic news website Hawamer.

The tale of Saddam’s recent phone call began about two weeks ago when Hassan al-Allawi, a writer and politician who was once a Baath Party member and close friend to Saddam, received a phone call at home. When he realized who the caller was purporting to be, he put the voice on a speaker for his dinner guests.

“The guests were scared,” al-Allawi said in a telephone interview Thursday from Beirut. “They said, ‘That is Saddam.”’

Al-Allawi, who stood by Saddam’s side as he rose to power and was briefly imprisoned before fleeing into exile, said he maintained a fondness for his former patron, even though he had embraced the democratic transition here as a member of Parliament. “Until this day, I love Saddam,” he said.

The call, he said, was jarring. “Saddam used certain words and emotions when he talked to me,” he said. “And this guy had all those words and emotions in this call.”

He added, “If I didn’t believe that Saddam was killed, I would say this is the real Saddam.”

Al-Allawi said he was surprised that a recording of the call, set to still photographs of Saddam and himself, was released on YouTube this week.

He said that he believed the perpetrators of the prank chose him, “because I was such a close friend of Saddam.”

During the call, which al-Allawi said he listened to on YouTube and verified as accurate, he never questioned the identity of the caller, but seemingly embraced the deceit. Al-Allawi noted to the caller that even after being exiled he maintained his affection for Saddam.

The caller imitating Saddam replied, “First of all, I thank you Hassan. I thank you, Hassan. Saddam is alive.”

Al-Allawi later said, “I am happy to hear your voice,” and told the caller that he was now working for the good of Iraq, not his personal gain like other politicians.

The caller claimed that in 2006 it was actually a body double of Saddam named “Mikhail” who was executed. Saddam often used body doubles, and for this reason many of the conspiracy theories about Saddam’s death suggest that it was one of these men who was hanged. The caller told Al-Allawi to give a message to the Iraqi people that the Baath Party would return to power.

“I will burn the Green Zone and I will make it red with the blood of the traitors,” the caller said.

On a Facebook page called “The Great Saddam Hussein,” which counts about 14,000 members, one member who identified himself as Ahmed Ismael wrote of the recording: “Saddam is a great leader, whether he was killed or is alive. Honestly, we hope he is alive so he can bring Iraq to what it was before.”

Even some who are still supportive of Saddam but believe he is dead, saw a conspiracy behind the posting of the YouTube video.

Laith Jamal, 37, visited Saddam’s grave Thursday after listening to the recording of the phone call. “I was happy when I heard the recording because it sounded like Saddam speaking,” he said. “But I think this recording was published by the traitors of the Green Zone to give a bad image of the great Saddam, and to keep pressure on the Sunni areas that supported Saddam.”






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