- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

IRBIL, Iraq — Saddam Hussein’s former chef says the dictator kept him under constant surveillance and jailed him twice for the scantest reasons. But even so, he retains lingering affection for the so-called “Butcher of Baghdad,” who goes on trial this week in the mass slayings of 143 Kurds.

“Every time I see him on TV, I feel comforted,” said the chef, an Iraqi Christian who spoke on the condition that he and the fast-food restaurant he runs in Irbil not be identified. “The man affects me emotionally.”

The restaurant, started two years ago, is a roaring success, with young Kurdish couples crowding in to order pizzas and chicken sandwiches.

But the mustachioed chef said his thoughts often turn to the culinary caprices of his former boss, who had a taste for traditional Iraqi dishes normally found only in Bedouin villages.

The chef’s attitude reflects an enduring emotional link that some Iraqis still feel with Saddam, who was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2003. Beneath his bed, the chef keeps a locked suitcase with photos of himself in the kitchen of Saddam’s palace and several small gifts from him.

“If Saddam had been a candidate [in January’s elections], I would have voted for him, my eyes closed, with no hesitation,” the chef said.

Catering to Saddam’s culinary whims was often a terrifying duty; he was more than willing to punish even the most trusted members of his entourage for any small transgression, the chef said.

“When he was upset, he always had to find a scapegoat,” the chef said.

Once, Saddam jailed him for 15 days after he was interviewed by an American TV journalist who asked too many personal questions. “The second time, he threw me to jail because I had violated the security rules by parking my car too close to the palace,” the chef said.

Saddam’s temper flared whenever there was bad news from the United States. “Whenever [President] Bush had a new speech, we were sure that Saddam would be ill-tempered,” the chef said.

Saddam rarely traveled without his own cooks for fear he would be poisoned. Over the years, the chef traveled with Saddam to Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In the Baghdad palace, the chef said, he was under constant surveillance. Samples of each meal were taken to laboratories to be tested for poison.

“We also had to test the meals we had cooked in front of one of Saddam’s people,” the chef said. In 1996, one of his colleagues was caught trying to poison the president and was immediately executed, he said.

Despite the humiliations and terror, the chef remains fascinated by the deposed dictator. Although other Iraqis remember Saddam’s torture chambers, mass graves and rape rooms, the chef recalls the gifts from Saddam — a French tie, a pair of British shoes and some medals.

“As a president, he had to be tough. The Iraqi state needs a tough man as a head, otherwise it falls into chaos,” the chef said. “But on a daily basis, he was very nice with us.”

Saddam’s culinary tastes tended toward traditional Iraqi meals, and he had a special weakness for camel milk, brought by couriers from small Bedouin villages near his hometown, Tikrit. He wolfed down the milk with bread and honey during breakfast, the chef said.

“Sometimes he would wake us up at 5 or 6 in the morning to grill some fish that he had just caught,” the chef said. “When he was in a good mood, he was sometimes coming to cook with us. He used to say that it made him relax.”

The chef has been living for more than two years in this city in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he moved with his wife and 6-year-old daughter.

His small restaurant, which opened shortly after he arrived, has become a gathering place for fashionable young couples who munch on burgers while listening to Lebanese pop tunes.

But the customers know little about the owner, except that he is Christian and that he comes from the capital. The chef said he hopes to keep it that way.

“Kurds who were tortured under Saddam would boycott my restaurant if they knew I fed their killer,” he said. “Shi’ites are hunting anyone who worked for Saddam. That is why I don’t even dare going back to Baghdad.”

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