BAGHDAD, Iraq—One of the last Iraqis to embrace Saddam Hussein on Iraqi national television sends his compliments to President Bush.
Adel Sarhan al Obeidi, an accountant in traditional robes, was videotaped April 4 greeting Saddam with delight in the streets of Aadamiya. It was the last videotape of Saddam broadcast by Iraqi TV before it fell completely dark, although another videotape, supposedly shot April 9, the day Baghdad fell, surfaced later on Abu Dhabi television.
The curious April 4 footage showed smoke rising in the background and Iraqis chanting pro-Saddam slogans, suggesting popular support for the Iraqi president even as American troops were capturing the international airport and besieging the capital.
But Obeidi said in an interview in his modest home that he is now a fan of the American president, for defeating Saddam.
"I would like to give my regards to President George W. Bush. I love him," he said. "Nobody could get Saddam Hussein except the Americans. They made the right decision."
Obeidi's tale of his encounter with Saddam confirms what had become clear in the weeks since the war began: that Saddam did not perish in the first U.S. bombing attack March 20 and was still moving around the capital in the final days of the war.
But still unknown is what happened to Saddam after April 4. Other Baghdadis have reported seeing him April 9, the same day Marines toppled his statue in central Baghdad, but there have been no publicized sightings since.
Obeidi was the chief accountant for several publishing ventures run by Saddam's son, Uday. He said he had never met his president in person before he emerged from a bread-buying errand at Mustafa Bakery on April 4. "Suddenly, I saw a laughing face," he said. "I was astonished! This man is Saddam Hussein!"
He walked right up to greet him, as portrayed in the video, to inquire about the security situation and the fate of his son.
"I reached out to shake his hand. And he hugged me and said, `Be patient. It'll be okay.'"
The father of eight brushed aside a suggestion that the man he met was perhaps one of Saddam's celebrated doubles. Obeidi had seen Saddam countless time on TV, he said, and was certain the man who hugged him was his president—by both his hair's slick black dye job and the way his mouth sagged slightly on the right side of his face.
Saddam only strolled the streets for about 15 minutes, Obeidi said, but he concluded that his embattled leader was exhausted and not in good shape. Saddam's clothes were uncharacteristically wrinkled, and he was, curiously, wearing his pistol in a leg holster, not on his hip. When Obeidi looked into his eyes, he said, "I felt there was a deep sadness in him."
Since then, Obeidi has seen bootlegged Baghdad videos that show Iraqi intelligence officers torturing Iraqi prisoners, and the accountant has concluded that Saddam ruled with a curious blend of charisma and fear.
"There's a rumor that Saddam Hussein is a sorcerer and some genies are guarding him," he said in a whisper. "Actually, you know, people hate Saddam Hussein. But when you see him before your very eyes, he is astonishing! You want to shake his hand. So he must be a sorcerer."
By Sunday, however, with U.S. troops occupying the city and Obeidi managing the accounts of a new, independent sports newspaper, he had concluded that Saddam's magic powers were sapped.
"I think that he's gone with the wind; he's finished. No one would greet him like last time," he said. Were Saddam to appear in Aadamiya again, "I think the people would tie his neck with a rope and drag him through the streets."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+SADDAM