08/18/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
To daughters Raghad and Rana, Dad was a swell guy. He spent hours playing with his kids and helping them with schoolwork. "He was a very good father, loving, had a big heart," said Raghad, 36, in an Aug. 1 interview with CNN. Rana, 34, touchingly added, "Every moment, I think about him, and I hope...that God will protect him and keep him safe."
They were, of course, speaking of Saddam Hussein, 66, a man who over-saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—including Raghad and Rana's husbands, who were riddled with bullets while the women's brothers, Uday and Qusay, watched from the comfort of a silver Mercedes. Given Dad's mercurial moods it was perhaps not surprising, when the sisters spoke last week on CNN and Al-Arabiya television, that they had only the sweetest things to say about Saddam.
Raghad and Rana had known an especially privileged upbringing as two of the dictator's five children with his first wife, Sajida, who was betrothed to Saddam at age 5. (In addition to Uday, 39, and Qusay, 37, killed by U.S. forces on July 22, there's sister Hala, 31.) But Raghad and Rana found themselves at odds with the family in 1995. At the time, Raghad was married to Hussein Kamel Hassan, who ran Iraq's clandestine weapons program, and Rana was wed to his brother, Saddam Kamel Hassan, the head of the secret police. After months of a power struggle with Uday, the Hassans began to fear for their lives and fled, taking their wives and seven children with them. In Jordan, Hussein Kamel boldly vowed to overthrow his father-in-law.
Raghad and Rana soon missed their homeland and pressured their spouses to return to Iraq. The sisters managed to extract a promise of clemency from their family. Showing spectacularly poor judgment, the Hassan brothers took the bait, and in February 1996 headed back to Baghdad. Two days later, they died in a hail of gunfire ordered by Saddam. When asked during their Aug. 1 interviews how they felt about their father's lethal revenge, the sisters elected to speak no evil. Raghad could only utter a cryptic, "Our wounds are deep."
The sisters, who have once again taken refuge in Jordan, shed no more light on the fate of other family members. They declined to talk about the bloody end of their brothers, and Raghad said she had not seen Sajida or Hala since the fall of Baghdad. There have been unconfirmed reports that Saddam's second wife, a tall blonde named Samira Shah-bandar, is holed up in Beirut.
As for the $25 million question—Where's Papa?—Raghad insisted that the last time she saw Saddam was five days before the start of the war in March, at a family meeting in Baghdad. He brought sweets for his grandchildren and was otherwise his "normal," lovable self, she said. Meanwhile, the sisters are adjusting to life in exile. Earlier, at an undisclosed hideout that may have been in Syria, Raghad carped to the Times of London about the indignity of having to spend her days "washing dishes, doing housework [and] laundry." Their accommodations in Jordan are more upscale. Even though they are not thought to be in any danger, and the U.S. appears to have no interest in taking them into custody, they are being housed in a secluded palace with round-the-clock security. As Rana told CNN, "This is the first day I put my head on my pillow and feel peace." Somewhere out there, their father may be wishing he could say the same.
Courtney Rubin in London and John A. Halaby in Amman