When Saddam Met Oliver Reed
Thirty years ago, a Middle Eastern dictator wanted to make a propaganda movie to boost his country’s morale at a time of war. A stellar cast, headed by Oliver Reed, was assembled and shipped out to Arabia. What followed is a tale of subterfuge, state dinners, arrests, black humour and a film that seemed to be lost forever… until now. This is an extraordinary true story, told for the first time, to Esquire Middle East.
Marc Sinden has been sitting in the back of a café in London’s Hampstead for half an hour. He got there early, ordered a coffee and waited. It had been a long time since anyone had asked him about the long-forgotten film, Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra, set in the deserts of Arabia. Sinden was curious and he didn’t want to be late. When we greet one another he rises to reveal a young-spirited, middle-aged man, with a theatrical intonation, a greying goatee and moustache and a deep voice uncannily similar to that of his elderly father, the British actor Donald Sinden.
“Have you ever read the Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence?” he asks, pulling out a folder full of photographs. They are from Iraq in the early 1980s. He flicks through them, pausing at pictures of himself as a young man – shirtless, with a military-style moustache – standing in front of a film truck.
Some of the pictures show the vast plains of Mesopotamia; others reveal Baghdad’s then-modern skyline, long since altered by the bombs of successive American incursions. “You’ll understand Lawrence and his total love…” his sentence trails off as he looks at another picture of a barren desert landscape. “…What I got out of it was the love-hate relationship he had with the desert,” he says, re-framing his point. “You hate the place, the flies, the sand, the heat. It’s not like Camber Sands [a picturesque beach in the UK]. But when you leave you want to go back.” It has been thirty years since Sinden left Iraq. In 1981, as a young actor trying to break free from the gravitational force of a famous father, Sinden was offered the job of a lifetime. A new film was to be shot with a huge budget. Unlimited, he was told.
It was to be a war epic, set in 1920s Mesopotamia and centred on an Arab nationalist revolt against the cruel rule of a British Empire hungry for oil; oil that was so prevalent it seeped naturally in to large black pools in the desert. The film was to be called Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra. The Great Question. Later it would have a different title: A Clash of Loyalties. It was to be Iraq’s version of Lawrence of Arabia and an all-star cast had been assembled. James Bolam had signed up. Ron Goodwin, arguably one of the greatest film score composers of all time, was to write the soundtrack, and Ken Buckle, who had trained under the legendary Yakima Canutt, was the head stuntman. But the biggest coup had been securing the services of Oliver Reed. The money to pay for all this, and the driving force behind the grandiose idea, was to come from an obscure autocrat who was nevertheless a friend of Great Britain: Saddam Hussein.
“A very well known casting director called Lesley De Pettit cast me as Captain Dawson,” Sinden recalls. “I read the script and thought, What fun! Being sent to Iraq was like being told you were being sent to Saturn. I had no idea what they were talking about; I had to look it up on the map. I only knew I was playing the baddie.”
It was Sinden’s first film, after spending most of his early acting career in theatre in London’s West End. There were certain benefits to be had with this new role. “Oh boy, serious money! I don’t think I have ever earned as much money from any film since then.”
Sinden was told to prepare himself to leave in ten weeks’ time. He arranged for his inoculations, bought suitable clothing to deal with the fifty-degree heat and then headed to the Iraqi embassy to get a visa. Shortly afterwards he got a knock on his door. “Within a day of the visa being issued I am visited by two British gentlemen in suits,” he says, reliving the moment as it were yesterday, rather than three decades ago. They claim they are from the Foreign Office. And I’m thinking, ‘Right, very interesting, what do you want?’ They ask if I am going to Iraq and I say: ‘Yes,’ and I don’t have to tell them the date; they tell me when I will be leaving.”
Sinden claims he never knew where the men were really from. MI6, perhaps. Maybe another intelligence agency that no one had heard of. Either way, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse
Sinden claims he never knew where the men were really from. MI6, perhaps. Maybe another intelligence agency that no one had heard of. Either way, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, appealing to his duty and his pride in “Queen and Country”. Saddam Hussein had come to power just two years earlier and in 1980 he embarked on an insane military escapade against his sworn enemy, Iran’s new Revolutionary regime. The West was, of course, providing Saddam with arms and training to fight off the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. But Saddam was also seen as a loose cannon and an unpredictable ally. The scale of brutality was emerging and information needed to be gathered about this secretive regime. Almost nothing was known about the layout of modern Baghdad and Sinden was asked by the mysterious gentlemen to take some “holiday snaps” while on his trip.
They wanted details of the skyline, of anything that looked like it might have military value, such as communications antennae, government buildings and palaces. Those holiday snaps are sitting in the folder on the table in front of us now. “Do you remember when the BBC and ITN showed pictures of Baghdad during the [first] Gulf War?” he says inspecting the folder as if doing so for the first time in a long while. “They didn’t have anything so I sold these to them.” After agreeing to the request, Marc Sinden packed a camera into his travel bag and prepared for the strangest journey of his life.
With the instructions from the “Foreign Office” still ringing in his ears, Sinden flew to Kuwait with the film’s three stuntmen, including Ken Buckle, where they would all take a taxi to Baghdad. “We say ‘Baghdad’; which is a bit like saying ‘Rome’ to a London cabbie,” he chuckles. An already unusual story was about to get a whole lot more strange. “Ken was an incredible horseman. One of the others specialised in crashing planes, which not many people do nowadays,” Sinden recalls. “He actually died… he decapitated himself. Very sad. Anyway, flying with stuntmen is not something I would advise – especially if they wreck planes for a living – because I have never seen a more nervous passenger. They are sitting there waiting to crash.”
Three hours outside of Kuwait the air conditioning on the ageing taxi broke. It was only April, but with five people squeezed inside, the car was so hot that Sinden remembers he couldn’t touch the glass. The heat, though, was the least of their worries. Their Kuwaiti driver sped through the desert, crazily overtaking old Mercedes trucks as sand whipped across the desolate highway, his Western passengers becoming increasingly terrified as the kilometres whizzed by. This, incidentally, was the same highway that would become a graveyard for thousands of Iraqi troops, carpet bombed by the American planes as they fled Kuwait during the first Gulf War.
“We’re watching this driver like a hawk to make sure he doesn’t fall asleep,” Sinden continues. “Then he decides to overtake a truck. In the distance I see a truck coming towards us, getting closer and closer. It gets so frightening that the stuntman sitting up front grabs the wheel and hoikes it. We go skimming off the road and roll twice. When all get out of the car, the driver falls about laughing. And the stuntman goes WHACK!” Sinden says, slapping his fist into his other hand to mimic the taxi driver being punched flush in the face. “Now we have a bigger problem. We’re two hours outside Baghdad and we have an unconscious driver. So we take it in turns to drive. When we hit the outskirts of Baghdad he finally wakes up and we explain the two missing teeth, put him back in the driving seat and we pay him quite a large amount of money.”
The party arrived in Baghdad just in time to see Oliver Reed being hung out of the fifth floor window of the Mansour Melia Hotel by one ankle, upside down and screaming with laughter
The party arrived in Baghdad just in time to see Oliver Reed being hung out of the fifth floor window of the Mansour Melia Hotel by one ankle, upside down and, screaming with laughter. The man holding him was a burly, ex-Special Forces Frenchman who now worked as Reed’s personal bodyguard. But Reed had said something to grievously upset his minder. The Mansour Melia used to be a vision of opulent modernity. Nine years after Sinden met Reed here, the hotel would become notorious as the gilded prison where passengers from British Airways Flight 149 were held captive by Saddam Hussein as a military bargaining chip. (The plane, destined for Kuala Lumpur, had stopped to refuel as scheduled in Kuwait City, which had been occupied just hours before by Iraqi troops.) Twenty years later, the second Gulf War would leave the hotel abandoned, looters stripping its bones in the anarchy. But in 1981 the Mansour Melia was one of the finest hotels in the Middle East, with swimming pools arranged like the Olympic Rings and a delicate garden full of jasmine growing haphazardly behind it.
A wild boar, fattened for slaughter, angrily rattled its cage in the hotel grounds. And a middle-aged Englishman was being held by one ankle out of the fifth floor window. “Do not say that again,” growled the Frenchman. Oliver Reed, dangling over the fatal drop, burst into laughter. “DO NOT SAY THAT AGAIN!”, repeated the angry Frenchman. “We never did find out what Olly said,” laughs Sinden.
Oliver Reed’s legendary drinking was particularly heavy at this time. Now forty-two years old, the actor was dating seventeen-year-old schoolgirl Josephine Burge, who he’d met in his local pub in Surrey. (He would marry her in 1985 when she turned twenty-one.) Sinden insists that Reed was a model of professionalism, always remembering his lines and never turning up to work drunk. But off-set he would drink whiskey by the bottle, force anybody that passed him into an impromptu arm-wrestle and, much to Sinden’s distaste, show off recently taken Polaroids of himself with his new partner. “He took great pleasure in showing us photographs of what he had done with her the night before,” Sinden says. “It was as if he had something to prove, which was very sad.”
Out in the desert filming, in Sinden’s words, “a bloody close” flying stunt.
Filming progressed slowly. Many of the shoots took place out in the searing desert heat, near Kut, (“a one-horse town,” according to Sinden) 170 kilometres southeast of Baghdad. As if the work wasn’t arduous enough, the crew also had the man in charge of operations to deal with. Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra was directed by Iraq’s greatest living director Mohamed Shukri Jameel, who would go on to make further war epics that were paid for by Saddam. “He had a unique Michael Winner-style of directing, and he had a riding crop that he’d use to hit the extras,” recalls Sinden, making a thwacking sound with his hand against his leg. The story centred on a famous Arab uprising against an unpopular British official called Sir Percy Cox, a colonial administrator during the late 19th century and early 20th century, and one of the key figures behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. At the centrepiece of the film was a huge cavalry charge involving more than forty horses, many of which would die in the process. Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra would become infamous for being the last film to use the controversial “Running W” stunt technique.
The Running W was essentially a piece of wire folded into a W and held in place at each end by two car axles buried in the ground. It would work as a trip wire that would catch the horse’s legs as it galloped at full speed, yanking it to the ground and catapulting the stunt rider forward for a safe but spectacular shot. The problem was that if the move didn’t kill the horse outright, it would often have to be put down shortly afterwards. The technique was banned in the 1970s but Shukri Jameel insisted on the shot. “It was banned worldwide except, we discovered, in Iraq,” says Sinden. “They decided we would do the famous cavalry charge. They wanted me to stand at a given spot and point my revolver at the lead Arab charging towards me. The horse would fall down using the Running W, with [stuntman] Ken Buckle literally flying past me. We were quite worried about the method of direction. Shukri Jameel would move the rider around by whipping a riding crop.” After five takes, and the deaths of several horses, the scene was finally wrapped.
When Sinden wasn’t filming, he was taking photographs and meeting occasionally with his handlers at the British Embassy in Baghdad to brief them on what he’d seen. He knew the hotel was bugged after one of the film crew discovered a windowless room with reels and reels of recorded conversations from the guests’ rooms. Sinden’s shots revealed a country knee-deep in a disastrous military campaign on its eastern border. By day he’d walk around the square near Rashid Street, a bustling, friendly street market. Hordes of smiling young men in military uniforms holding new machine guns would pile into the back of trucks destined for the front line with Iran. But at midnight every night the area was cleared without explanation. Sinden managed to break onto the roof of his hotel, camera in-hand, and peer down into the dark square. “I couldn’t use the flash because I would be spotted, but I could look straight down on Rashid Street to see what was happening. Trucks as far as I could see in both directions were coming back [from the front]. At ten in the morning they would leave full of boys. But at night they were emptying them, piles and piles of bodies.”
Street life in Baghdad. Note the reflection of Marc Sinden in the window and the photo of Saddam Hussein inside the shop. Below: These photographs are from the collection shot by Marc Sinden for a British government intelligence agency. One of Saddam Hussein’s monuments, a Churchillian fist, outside the Baghdad Cinema studios and in front of the Baghdad Tank Corps barracks. And a surreptitious picture (blacked out by Esquire) of one of the men, probably from the Mukhabarat, who had been following Sinden.
The increasingly desperate military situation had to be hidden from the people, and Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra was a chance to stoke nationalist pride at a time when the country badly needed a boost. Saddam Hussein had invested both financially and emotionally into the project; so much so that he personally invited Sinden and Reed for dinner at his presidential palace. A limo picked the actors up and whisked them to Saddam’s quarters. Once inside, they were shown to a room where the dictator sat at the end of a long dining table. He greeted his guests in Arabic, through an interpreter, and welcomed them to his home. Tariq Aziz, his Christian foreigner minister, sat with him alongside a phalanx of generals. Saddam’s notoriously bloodthirsty son Uday was there too. “He was a little s***, a nasty man,” spits Sinden, showing a flash of anger for the only time during our meeting.
Sinden recalls a moment during the dinner when Saddam suddenly embarked on the most extraordinary rant. “I had no idea what he was talking about because it was in Arabic, but he just went off on one! I could only liken it to watching Goebbels; the sheer power of oratory… we were sucked into it. He might just have been ordering more food, but we were all mesmerised.” One man, however, was unimpressed. Oliver Reed had had enough. He wanted a drink. He wanted to get back to his hotel and his young girlfriend. “Olly was sitting next to me and just said, assuming no one could speak English, ‘What a c***!’”
Dinner was over. Saddam rose and, after shaking each of his generals’ hands, approached Reed. “In the most perfect English he said: ‘Mr. Reed, I hope I didn’t bore you too much.’” Later Sinden would discover that his dinner with Saddam, far from condemning him to execution for offending one of the world’s most brutal dictators in the most grievous possible way, in all probability saved his life.
The tiny cell had no window and stank of vomit. It housed a small, uncomfortable bed, a single chair but no desk. Screams of torture from neighbouring inmates echoed through the walls, sounds that still haunt Sinden to this day. A few hours earlier, he had been taking pictures while enjoying the first of three days’ break from filming. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was an officer from Saddam’s notorious secret police, the Jihaz al Mukhabarat al-Amma. They had been following him for a few days, wondering why this young Englishman was photographing the drabbest parts of Baghdad’s skyline.
Sinden felt a hand on his shoulder. It was an officer from Saddam’s notorious secret police, the Jihaz al Mukhabarat al-Amma. They had been following him for a few days, wondering why this young English man was photographing the drabbest parts of Baghdad’s skyline.
Sinden was seized, taken to an interrogation centre and searched. Somehow the officials failed to find the roll of film hidden in his shoe. But for forty-eight hours Sinden believed he was just moments from death as he listened to the sounds of hideous suffering. “I don’t really want to remember,” he recalls with a shudder. “But, you know, the silly thing was I pretended it was fake. It was like being back at boarding school. Mine was a Dickensian horror, and my defence used to be to pretend, aged seven, that I was in a film. I remember being in the cell thinking the same thing; that there was probably a loud speaker outside the door, with BBC sound effects playing.”
Sinden was eventually moved to another room. Forced into a chair and stripped from the waist up, he was grilled by a chain-smoking, middle-aged officer. “I wasn’t tortured but the threat was enough. It was nasty.” When he finally had the opportunity to respond to his inquisitor’s barrage of questions, Sinden uttered what turned out to be “the magic words”.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here at the behest of your glorious leader, Saddam Hussein.”
“What do you mean?”
“He is funding the film I am making. I had supper with him a week ago.”
Confused by this response, the officer left the room. Ten minutes later, Sinden was upgraded to the governor’s office. The governor apologised, explaining that the Palace had ordered his release, but adding that the country was at war with Iran. Precautions needed to be taken. He hoped Sinden would understand. A car was sent to take Sinden back to the hotel, the roll of film still wedged deep into his sock. “I got back to the hotel and no one even batted an eyelid. They just thought I’d been on a walk about.” Later, his British handlers from the embassy would make him relive the interrogations line by line. It was then that Marc Sinden decided it was time to leave.
The Arab villagers run for cover. Heavy artillery from the British Army destroys their tents as easily as the wind blows sand. A single plane drops bombs on the horsemen below, resulting in slaughter as man and beast are catapulted in every direction. Bullets from an armoured car destroy anyone who survives the initial blitz. The revolt against colonial rule has to be put down and the British have decided that its leader, and all his tribespeople, have to be taught a lesson. Resistance from these humble but brave fighters is futile in the face of modern firepower. Yet one man stands with his rifle and aims it to the sky. He fires, hitting the plane’s fuel tank before the pilot loses control and the aircraft bursts into flames. It is a solitary victory in a seemingly unwinnable war. But it is acts of heroism like this upon which insurgencies thrive. The hero is shot dead before the plane hits the ground.
Sinden’s escape plan was meticulously planned. Filming had meandered on longer than anyone had anticipated. Eight weeks had already passed and Oliver Reed was long gone. Terrified by the constant surveillance in the street and at the hotel – and fearing that his luck would run out and he was about to be discovered – Sinden pulled himself together and calmly collected his Iraqi exit visa. It gave him a window of just twenty-four hours to escape. He dressed in his 1920s uniform, complete with pith helmet and pistol, and ordered a car to take him to the set, where he informed the crew he was leaving. An old trick, Sinden reveals, that actors use from time to time. “When they know that something is costing them money every hour, they hurry up.” Once his last scene was completed, Sinden rushed to the waiting car and told the driver: ‘Get to the airport… Now!’”
The old sedan sped north from Kut to Baghdad, with Sinden calculating that they would be just in time for his flight to the safety of Jordan. But even that wasn’t enough. If a general were to board the plane, his driver explained, Sinden would be bumped from the flight. When he arrived, still in uniform, his fellow passengers looked on in bewilderment at the strange British man striding quickly over the runway to the Iraqi Airways plane. Once onboard, he sat fidgeting, cursing under his breath as the plane idled on the boiling tarmac. When the doors finally closed, the aircraft took off, escorted by two fighter jets that peeled away twenty minutes later. As it rose into the hazy blue sky, a cheer went around the plane among the passengers, most of whom were Iraqis blessed with enough wealth to flee their war-torn country.
“Everyone was equally as relieved,” remembers Sinden. “They were probably thinking the same as me… Thank god, they are not going to bring us back; we’ve made it!” The next day an Iraqi Airways flight from Amman taxied to its gate at Heathrow Airport and unloaded its passengers into the mercifully cool English spring. The air stewardesses looked on perplexed as a young British man, dressed in old colonial fatigues, with a pith helmet and Sam Browne military belt, charged down the stairs, dropped to his knees and kissed the tarmac.
Marc Sinden never saw Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra. The film was somehow completed and shown at the 1984 London Film Festival, even winning an award at the 1985 Moscow Film Festival. But no copy was known to exist in the West. The British Film Institute had spent thirty years looking for Saddam Hussein’s lost masterpiece. Rumours suggested that the Iraq leader put on mass screenings of the film shortly before the second Gulf War, but to the outside world, Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra seemed lost. That was until its whip-cracking director, Mohamed Shukri Jameel, called.
The British Film Institute had spent thirty years looking for Saddam Hussein’s lost masterpiece. Rumours had suggested that the Iraq leader put on mass screenings of the film shortly before the second Gulf War, but to the outside world, Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra seemed lost
Jameel arrives at his favourite restaurant in Jordan’s downtown Amman, wearing an old but immaculately kept British suit and a wide smile. It’s late in evening, but it is Ramadan and Jameel has just finished Iftar. We greet as if old friends and sit at a table on the pavement outside. The air is still thick and warm from the dying summer heat. Families of women dressed in abayas walk past with their children; teenagers dressed in basketball jerseys flirt with beautiful dark-haired girls drinking milkshakes in a nearby Baskin-Robbins. Jameel is in his late seventies now, but his face seems ageless and remarkably free of wrinkles. He focuses intensely as he talks and listens, peppering his speech with the British theatrical patois he picked up from studying film briefly in London in the 1950s.
“Thank you for giving me a tinkle,” he begins, breaking off occasionally only to shake the hands of a handful of compatriot refugees who recognise this giant of Iraqi cinema in their midst. He, like them, has found safety away from the brutality and carnage that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall, a war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people. But Jameel cannot return to his homeland, not after his films were so closely linked to the old regime.
“He [Saddam Hussein] asked me to make a war film about a pilot who was shot down in Iran [during the Iran-Iraq War],” he recalls, revelling in the memory of one particular movie. “The pilot had somehow survived and crossed a long distance to return to Iraq. I recast the pilot in the lead role as himself and took the whole crew as close to the border as we could get. We were being shot at by the Iranians when we were filming. Imagine that! But the scene did look more… ehh… realistic.”
British actor Bernard Archard (white suit) as Sir Percy Cox, British High Commissioner to Iraq.
Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra was Jameel’s attempt at making a huge Hollywood-style epic. He would periodically complain that it deserved to win an Oscar and was hurt by the oversight, but he talks about it with immense pride.
Far from being a Leni Riefenstahl figure to Saddam’s Hitler, Jameel says making films in Iraq was about trying to be smart enough to get your projects completed with as little government interference as possible.
“It was agony making films under Saddam,” he explains, believably. “You were fighting the Ministry of Culture. If you made a film with a message of encouragement to people that said, ‘To find sources of water, dig a well rather than look to the sky,’ they [the government] would say: ‘Why do you say these things?’ I tried to save the film from their propaganda; they loved propaganda. But because my ideas were so simple and good they thought I was more English than Iraqi. They didn’t like it.”
Filming Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra was the highlight of Jameel’s career, and he adored his English crew and actors; especially Oliver Reed. “He was very, very well-behaved,” Jameel says of Reed, before adding, “Oliver, he made a pyramid out of his beer tins!” But it was a hardening experience and the desert heat was the worst he had ever experienced. Constant battles with the ministry also made it hard to implement his vision. While the government saw the film as a way to immortalise the virtues of Iraq’s fighting spirit against a seemingly superior foe, Jameel saw it differently. He talks for half an hour about the colonisation of Iraq, the allegiances of the Shi’a and Sunni and the influence of the British. For him the clash of loyalties was more complex. Oliver Reed’s character, the British soldier and intelligence officer, Colonel Leachman, had stood up to his British superiors to say that they could not run Iraq like India, but ultimately he obeyed orders. The story was as much about the British clash of loyalties as it was the Iraqis’.
“I couldn’t believe it turned out so beautiful,” Jameel says, describing the first time he saw the film in a cinema in Baghdad.
The big question was: what would Saddam Hussein think of it? “He talked to me several times to listen to what I had to say – and not just about the film,” Jameel says. “Meeting him was like the old days, the king surrounded by characters, like Pompeii. These characters were jealous because I told the truth. It is different when you have the truth suppressed. He was very clever by nature. He could be very nice and very dangerous.”
Thankfully for Jameel, Saddam gave Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra the official thumbs-up. “He liked it very much. He told the Minister of Public Relations to gather all the governors and the ministers and show them the film. But some complained I didn’t show enough about the champions of the revolution against the British, the Shi’a.”
Mohamed Jameel might have navigated the minefield of palace politics under Saddam, but once the regime fell his life was always going to be in danger. He now spends his time in Amman, writing his memoirs. His daughter still lives in Baghdad, running an arts organisation. He doesn’t know whether he will ever return. “I will tell you of the scene I saw in London in 1957,” he says, moving closer to accentuate who really should be blamed for Saddam Hussein’s behaviour. “I saw children playing in an empty building; they were shouting: ‘The Germans are coming!’ And they would hide in the basement. When the Americans leave Iraq, the children will play and shout: ‘The Americans are coming!’ Who made Saddam? They [the Americans] did. Partly Iraqis, partly the Americans. This is always what Americans do.”
A few weeks later the phone rings. It is Jameel and he has some important news. His curiosity reawakened by our visit, he tells me he visited Jordan’s film institute, only to find that it had been closed down. Thousands of old Arabic films had been carelessly thrown out into a skip outside, decades of irreplaceable art destroyed. But in the rubble Jameel found what he was looking for: a single VHS copy of Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra. He has copied it to DVD and says he will post it to England. When it arrives I make copies and send one to the British Film Institute. The movie is every bit as spectacular as Jameel remembers. The opening panorama of Mesopotamia coveted by the oil-crazy British colonialist; Oliver Reed with his bottle of Woodpecker cider, playing a drunk a little too well; the long, brutal cavalry charge that brought an end to the era of the Running W.
Marc Sinden says he spent the subsequent years looking on as tragedy unfolded in Iraq. The regime he knew was gone, the Baghdad he had both feared and loved, destroyed. His small role on either side of the divide – part of Saddam’s propaganda machine on the one hand, part of his downfall on the other – provided its own clash of loyalties. But it was to home that he would always be beholden. On his return to London, Sinden was taken to a bar in Vauxhall Cross, near the MI6 building, where the two men from the “Foreign Office” looked through the photos he had carried in his sock that could have cost him his life. They told him they were happy with his work.
“How do I feel now, looking at Iraq now? It’s gone, just gone,” Sinden says after three hours recounting the story of Saddam’s great war epic. “The sheer schoolboy excitement of being in the Cradle of Civilisation. Iraq was something special. I am privileged to have seen it in something of a minor heyday. True, I saw those bodies coming back; it was like First World War cannon fodder. But I was in Iraq before we called Saddam Hussein a baddie. I had a hugely privileged insight into that part of the world.”
Like that other Englishman, T.E. Lawrence, the desert had never left him.