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My friend the dictator

Enter a Cairo neighborhood where Saddam Hussein is spoken of fondly.

A photo from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and Information showing Saddam Hussein sipping tea, released on the anniversary of the the July 17 revolution which brought the Baath Party to power in Baghdad. (Reuters)

CAIRO — The year was 1985. The gruesome Iran-Iraq war was approaching its sixth year and according to Louis Naguib, a humble pharmacist from Cairo, he had just landed in Baghdad.

He was installed at the swanky Al Rashid hotel in downtown Baghdad when the call came: His old friend, Saddam Hussein, just back from Mosul, was ready to meet up.

“He sent me so many invitations” over the years, said Naguib, now 79, puffing on a cigarette in the cool shade of his drug store in central Cairo. “But I was alone in the pharmacy, so I didn’t go. Until 1985.”

Naguib made his way the presidential palace, meeting aides at the entrance. On his way to meet with Saddam, he said, the aides stressed that he should address the dictator as "Mr. President."

When he entered Saddam's office, a vast marble space with a small desk at the far side of the room, the president, wearing full military fatigues, got up from behind the desk to meet Naguib in the middle of the room. The two embraced, and Naguib said that tears clouded his own eyes.

“‘I am a simple man from Upper Egypt, so you have to forgive me if we talk just as friends,” he recalled telling Saddam.

Hussein insisted that Naguib call him Saddam. And, knowing that Naguib shied away from politics, took the conversation in another direction.

“‘Dr. Louis, take me back to the '60s,’” Naguib said Saddam told him.

Indeed, their hour-long conversation centered on Saddam's three-year stay in Cairo, between 1960 and 1963, when he and Naguib became close friends.

As a young Baathist revolutionary, Saddam had been forced to flee Baghdad after his failed attempt to kill then-Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim.