- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2004

BAGHDAD — When Saddam Hussein’s statue was dramatically toppled from the middle of Firdos Square in Baghdad in April, it turned out to have been Iraq’s weightlifting champion who swung the first blow.

Armed with a large sledgehammer, Khadom Sharif Hassan started pounding away at the statue to cheers from the crowd.

Now, however, the beefy hero is in jail, accused of looting Baghdad’s National Army Museum of one of the former dictator’s most treasured exhibits: a 50-year-old black Norton motorcycle on which the young Saddam said he fled to Syria in 1959 after a botched assassination attempt on Iraq’s prime minister.

Mr. Hassan said he felt he had a legitimate claim to the bike, which until the looting frenzy had stood on a plinth in the museum, but was found in his workshop two weeks ago during a raid by Iraq’s special-crimes squad.

As the chief motorbike mechanic to Uday Hussein — Saddam’s now-deceased elder son — Mr. Hassan had spent countless hours lavishing care on the Norton. What’s more, he said, Uday used to confiscate the best motorcycles Mr. Hassan imported into Iraq, paying a fraction of their value.

From the special police headquarters in Baghdad, Mr. Hassan denied stealing the bike. “I bought the Norton from a looter,” he said. “I knew he had stolen it, but I had a duty to take it and look after it. I love that bike. Of course, I hate Saddam, but what he did wasn’t the bike’s fault. It is a special thing in Iraq’s history.”

Saddam was 22 when he took part in the attempt to kill the prime minister, Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim, who a year earlier had overthrown the British-backed monarchy to seize power. Though the plan failed, it sparked the Ba’ath Party’s rise to power.

In the U.S.-sponsored ambush, Saddam was installed in a Baghdad apartment to monitor Gen. Qasim’s motorcade, but lost his nerve and began firing too soon, killing a driver but only wounding the prime minister.

Another would-be assassin was equipped with bullets that did not fit his weapon; a third had a hand grenade that got stuck in the lining of his coat. Saddam, who was slightly injured by a fellow plotter, escaped.

The story of what happened next was changed and embellished considerably by Saddam over the years. Although the other conspirators took a train to Damascus, Saddam originally said he rode a horse across the desert and swam the Tigris before making his way to Syria. By the time Saddam decided to make a film about his exploits in the 1970s — Omar Sharif turned down the lead role — he said he had escaped on the Norton.

Mr. Hassan, 50, who is married and has three children, said he had looked after more than 100 motorbikes belonging to Uday for 16 years, working on them round-the-clock.

“I would be ordered to tune a bike at 3 a.m. if Uday decided after a night out that he wanted to ride the next day,” he said. “His favorite was a red Honda 750cc bike, which he used for jumping because he was tall and strong enough to drive a big bike.”

Uday preferred Japanese models to American Harley-Davidsons, Mr. Hassan said, but also liked a BMW that had been a present from King Abdullah of Jordan. After Uday was hospitalized in an accident, he ordered scores of his motorbikes to be lined up outside his window so that he could admire them.

At the time of his arrest, Mr. Hassan was in training for a weightlifting tournament in the Czech Republic in May — a competition in which he now has little chance of participating.

Mr. Hassan has served time for theft after being jailed when money went missing during Uday’s aborted attempt two years ago to win the hosting of the 2012 Olympics for Iraq.

This time, Mr. Hassan can expect an even longer sentence, according to officials from the serious-crimes squad. They describe the case against him as “open and shut.”

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