For five years, Raji al-Tikriti served as Saddam Hussein's personal doctor and knew the Iraqi leader more intimately than most. In 1993, however, al-Tikriti was executed by Hussein's regime amid accusations that he had been involved in plotting a coup. Common knowledge in Iraq has it that al-Tikriti was eaten alive by a pack of wild dogs as other prisoners were forced to watch. But in an interview with RFE/RL, his eldest son spoke about his family, his father's thoughts about Hussein, and the real story behind his execution.
Baghdad, 13 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Raji al-Tikriti came from Tikrit, north of Baghdad, Hussein's hometown and an area known for its influence during the Iraqi leader's rule.
Al-Tikriti was a well-known figure in Iraq. He had worked as a doctor for 40 years and had published several books on the treatment of bone and joint diseases. He was director of Iraq's Medical Services from 1978 to 1988 and served as president of Iraq's Medical Association from 1990 until his arrest. He was never a member of the ruling Ba'ath Party, however.
Al-Tikriti's eldest son, Al-Muhanned Raji Abbas al-Tikriti, was in his 20s when his father was killed. In an interview this week with RFE/RL in Baghdad, he says Hussein chose his father as his personal doctor for two reasons. Hussein wanted to be treated by the best specialists available, and he wanted people from Tikrit, his loyalists, beside him.
Though al-Tikriti was one of the most respected doctors in Iraq, his son says Hussein still trusted no one:
"Concerning trust, [Hussein] didn't allow anybody to see him alone and not every medicine that he was prescribed did he use immediately. Certainly, there were people who checked the medicine [first]," he says.
Al-Muhanned says Hussein -- who was known to suffer from back troubles -- employed different doctors for different health problems. He says Hussein had some five doctors on call, three of whom were from Tikrit.
But al-Muhanned say his father was one of the most trusted. He says his father sometimes swam alone with Hussein. Swimming helped ease Hussein's back pain. Al-Muhanned says the former Iraqi leader did not discuss politics with his father. He says his father often was called unexpectedly to meet him. Once, he says al-Tikriti went to see Hussein in a bunker at his residence in the Raduanya district of Baghdad.
Al-Muhanned says his father discovered some traits of Hussein's personality that were hidden from the public. Al-Muhanned says his father was a close friend of Hussein's uncle, Latif al-Tuljaf. He says once Hussein said to his father that he did not like his uncle because al-Tuljaf had not taken him for walks as a young man and did not speak with him as an equal.
Al-Muhanned says his family remained loyal to Hussein until after the first Gulf War in 1991, when he says his father's attitude toward Hussein changed.
He says one evening he was speaking alone with his father, who was carrying a bunch of documents. He read aloud a summary of a meeting of Iraqi leaders. Al-Muhanned says Hussein's way of thinking was simple:
"Two paragraphs impressed me from the document. The document quoted Saddam as saying, 'If I owned one-quarter of American technology, I would have destroyed the White House.' And he read one more sentence, 'If I owned one-quarter of the American technology, I would have turned the Atlantic Ocean on the United States,'" al-Muhanned says.
Al-Muhanned says he asked his father where he thought Iraq was heading after its defeat in 1991. "There was silence in the room," al-Muhanned remembers today.
He says his father really was involved in an attempted coup against Hussein in 1993. Al-Tikriti traveled to the Jordanian capital, Amman, in July 1993 to deliver a lecture as president of Iraq's Medical Association, but al-Muhanned says it was only a cover and that the trip was part of the plot against Hussein.
Iraq's ambassador to Jordan approached al-Tikriti in Amman and said he had to go back to Iraq because a political case had been opened concerning a coup against Hussein. He told al-Tikriti that he was a suspect.
Al-Muhanned says his father was accused of being involved with other coup plotters who were also well-known personalities in Iraq at that time. Al-Muhanned says the ambassador told his father that Hussein had personally promised not to harm him.
Al-Muhanned says he does not know what forced his father to return. He thinks the only reason might be that Hussein had threatened to kill the doctor's family if he did not.
Al-Tikriti was arrested when he reached a checkpoint near the capital, Baghdad, but his luggage and personal documents were forwarded to his home -- a generous move for Hussein's regime, al-Muhanned says.
Al-Tikriti was kept in Baghdad's Abu Graib prison and was executed on 13 January 1993.
Al-Muhanned says his father's body was returned to the family and that its condition indicated that he had been hanged, not torn apart by wild dogs.
"Yes, we saw the body and there were no traces of torture. The only thing which was unusual was his stretched neck. The color of the face was somewhat reddish and blue. There were signs of bleeding from his lips and from nose and marks from a rope on his neck and on his hands," al-Muhanned says.
Al-Muhanned says his family was not allowed to mourn in the proper Muslim way, but that, strangely, the authorities observed a 40-day mourning period. After that time, he says four people from the Committee of the Confiscation of Property knocked at the family's door. They informed the family that al-Tikriti's office, a family house in Tikrit, a car, and some other property were being confiscated.
However, the family was able to keep a big house in Baghdad, and al-Muhanned was allowed to work to support the family. He says that after some time, his father's watch was even returned.
Al-Muhanned says the real story behind his father's arrest and the time he spent in prison may never be known. The files from the offices of the Iraqi secret services were looted after the fall of Baghdad, and many were destroyed.