While Saddam ran Iraq, Odai and Qusai ran amok

Someday in the not-too-distant future, Iraqi parents will tuck their children into bed at night and, like Scheherazade, tell them tales of Odai and Qusai, the notorious sons of Saddam.

This is how people talk about them even now.

Odai, 39, was the loud, preening one. Qusai, 37, was the quiet, calculating one. Both were pampered sons of a murderous tyrant, handed the power to inflict pain and demand pleasure at will from an early age. They learned to abuse their power with pathological glee and unbridled egotism.

Here's a small example: When Odai built yet another massive palace in the middle of Baghdad, he was dissatisfied with the noise of fast-moving traffic passing beside the compound. So he had a single-lane overland bridge built nearby to divert the cars and slow them down. It created traffic jams in the city, but at least his yard was quiet.

Both brothers had many palaces, exotic pets, women, jewelry and, in Odai's case, hundreds and hundreds of cars. Both had made untold millions trafficking in contraband under U.N. sanctions.

Remember Qusai and his goons pulling up in front of the Iraqi central bank and withdrawing a billion dollars hours before the U.S. bombing began? The city of Baghdad cowered in the shadow of Saddam's sons, most especially Odai. People knew, more or less, how to avoid Saddam's wrath. But there was no predicting the fits of pique that might seize the filial bogeyman.

Everybody knew that Odai, a party animal, would help himself to another man's wife -- usually just for a night or two -- if he felt like it, and share her with his entourage, if he felt like it. Sometimes he took the bride on her wedding night, in her gown. Sometimes the groom would be found dead later, a suicide. Sometimes the bride would be found dead later, too.

Everybody knew that if someone got on Qusai's nerves, he would send a signed death warrant to his brother, who would carry it out without question. It wasn't that Qusai minded bloodying his hands, he didn't. He liked to shoot suspected traitors in the head.

But he did mind getting his hands dirty; he had a phobic fear of germs and didn't want anyone, even his children, to touch him.

Saddam Hussein had good reason for his paranoia. People were trying to kill him all the time. If he had food tasters and a special chef who traveled with him, it was because there were others trying to poison him. His bloodthirsty behavior usually had a purpose behind it, to terrorize people into submission, and to intimidate enemies.

Pathological jealousy

No such logic could explain the behavior of Odai Saddam Hussein. Few in history can top him for pathological jealousy.

Once Odai and his friends were at the Jadriyah hunting club in Baghdad, where the popular singer Kathem Saher was performing. Women had flocked around the handsome crooner's table, asking for autographs.

Odai was enraged. He ordered Saher over to his table and said he wanted an autograph, too. Then he handed the singer his shoe, offering him a terrifying dilemma -- should he insult Odai by signing the lowly thing, or insult Odai by not signing it? The singer signed the shoe. Then he left the club and the country immediately, knowing he'd be dead if Odai ever saw him again.

As the head of Iraq's Olympic committee, Odai was a sports buff. His method of motivating athletes was to threaten them with torture if they lost. But sometimes he tortured them if they won, too, if he thought a player was getting more attention from the fans than he.

He tortured star members of the soccer team. He tortured members of the Olympic wrestling team. Sometimes he just beat them and threw them in a cell for several days. Other times he used one of his favorite medieval methods, called falaqa, -- hanging the victim upside down and beating him mercilessly on the soles of the feet.

Odai sometimes tortured his friends for little infractions. If you were late for a meeting, for example, you might get beaten. He'd beat the butler for having body odor.

Movie buff

Odai liked television. He was in charge of the national media, which meant he controlled the airwaves. A movie buff, he would steal the satellite signal for films aimed at other countries, and broadcast first-run Hollywood movies free on Iraqi television. People in Baghdad have seen "Lord of the Rings" and "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." They've seen "The Matrix." They missed "Matrix Reloaded" because Odai was busy running from the American invasion.

Here was Odai's problem: Daddy didn't love him enough. Odai was too unstable even for Saddam, and the dictator had long before elevated the younger son to positions of real responsibility, naming Qusai head of the Republican Guard and putting him in charge of military intelligence and the special security forces. Qusai was a murderer you could count on.

Odai, on the other hand, only got to control the state media, youth culture and sports. His title as head of the Fedayeen Saddam was a nominal one. Apparently, it wasn't enough.

In 1996, Odai's enemies finally had had enough of his bullying behavior. Assailants attacked him in his car in the chic Mansour district, shooting into his entourage and nearly killing him. The attack left Odai with permanent damage, provoking a stroke and afflicting him with frequent seizures. Walking became difficult. Sex, according to the local gossip, became impossible.

It made Odai even more sadistic. He would go out to the city's private clubs and "invite" a group of girls back to his house. He'd get them drunk, and drug their drinks. But then when he couldn't perform sexually, he'd beat them. Doctors would be called to remove the victims.

Not shown discipline

Was it a problem of education? The boys were spoiled, more than a bit. They weren't shown much discipline as children. They got used to having their way. It's the kind of thing that happens when Daddy is a dictator busy maintaining a regime of terror during the day, and supervising the interior decoration of an endless succession of palaces in his free time.

In elementary school, Odai always was honored as the best student of the week. In high school, it was not unusual for Odai to show up at Saddam's alma mater, Kharkh High School, wearing a bandoleer with live ammunition. Once, when he broke his leg, his class had to move to a classroom on a lower floor to accommodate him.

It was a small step from there to having a bridge built to keep the traffic noise near his yard to a minimum. (Another bridge near the presidential compound, the 14th of July Bridge, was reserved for Odai's use alone.) But all that is in the past. As wild, joyous gunfire erupted through the streets of Baghdad on Tuesday night, leading many residents to celebrate the brothers' demise from the safety of their bedrooms, it seemed that the legend of Saddam's sons would surely outlive them.

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