Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The long-awaited capture of Saddam Hussein brought euphoria to many, and for a curious few, it raised a simple question: Whatever became of the deposed leader’s team of look-alikes?

Military officials in Washington yesterday said they hadn’t heard of any Saddam body doubles being arrested during the hunt for the real thing.

“It’s very well-known he had and employed body doubles,” one defense official said. “But as far as what became of his body doubles, we simply don’t know.”

Saddam is said to have made regular use of look-alikes during his reign of power. Popping up in place of their boss, they mainly were used to obscure his whereabouts.

Before the war, one Saddam expert reportedly said observant Iraqis could tell the real Saddam from a look-alike by studying his body guards. If they laughed or appeared to lack seriousness, it was a tip-off that they were guarding a phony, because they simply wouldn’t behave like that around the real thing.

Saddam’s behavior around cameras was another indicator. He had a hankering for close-ups, while a look-alike would keep a distance.

It wasn’t entirely clear whether it was the real Saddam or an extra who was running around Baghdad about the time the city fell. Hours after American troops had taken the airport, a man said to be Saddam showed up on Iraqi television walking in a green military outfit through a crowd of chanting Iraqis.

The look-alike issue made headlines again a few days later when it surfaced that the ousted dictator’s statue, torn to earth in downtown Baghdad, actually was a sculpture of one of his impersonators.

All the talk of body doubles, made it seem likely at least a few would have been arrested during the numerous raids by coalition forces during the eight months since Baghdad fell.

A military official in Baghdad said by e-mail yesterday it “is possible that individuals that look like Saddam have been arrested and released, but we don’t receive reports on every arrest, so we really can’t give you any hard facts.”

The troops rounded up weapons and suspects during house and village raids particularly in central Iraq, where Saddam’s network is strongest. Although some are held, others are released when their identities turn out different from originally thought.

That wasn’t the case on Saturday night when raiders found a bearded, grimy-looking Saddam cowering in hole just south of Tikrit, a stronghold 90 miles north of Baghdad.

While kept secret at first, it didn’t take long before American and Iraqi officials felt sure enough to announce to the world that they had the real thing. Still, there were skeptics.

Over the weekend, one soldier, recently back from Iraq with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which was instrumental in toppling Baghdad, put it perhaps best.

“It doesn’t mean anything to me, with all the talk of all the [Saddam] impersonators, until they do DNA tests and know absolutely that it’s him,” the soldier told the Associated Press at the 3rd Division’s headquarters in Fort Stewart, Ga.

On Sunday, the head of the U.S.-installed interim Iraqi Governing Council appeared in Madrid, saying DNA tests confirmed that the man found in the hole was Saddam, although specific details of the tests weren’t made clear.

Speaking at the Pentagon yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters: “Since we have received DNA — I guess you’d call it proof, or that’s — I think it’s probably 99-point-something percent proof positive is what they say.”

Mr. Rumsfeld emphasized that Saddam admitted his identity when captured and several of his former Cabinet members and members of the new Iraqi Governing Council had confirmed he wasn’t a body double.

“Knowing that his doubles had used plastic surgery and could very well have done duplicate tattoos and bullet holes and various things [like] moles that would make it appear they were Saddam Hussein, the decision was made to have him publicly identified,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

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