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WAR WITH IRAQ / HUSSEIN MYSTERY

U.S. Officials Do Double Take

Hussein's haggard look during televised appearance has experts analyzing tape to determine if an impersonator was used.

March 21, 2003|Bob Drogin and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — So was that Saddam Hussein? Or was it his secret "double" who appeared on TV to mock the U.S. president as "the criminal little Bush" shortly after the war began in Iraq?

Experts at the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and other U.S. agencies scrambled Thursday to analyze the mustachioed man's earlobes, his thick glasses, his voice and speech patterns, his mouth movements, the folds of his military uniform, the way he sat, even his badly dyed hair.

"It's still an open question," a U.S. intelligence official said Thursday night. "There's doubt. We just don't know."

U.S. officials say Hussein has trained and used eight doubles over the years to impersonate him at public events and other occasions where he fears there could be an assassination attempt. They said it might take several days to determine if Hussein really appeared on the tape.

Iraq's state-run TV broadcast what it said was Hussein giving a rambling speech early Thursday, shortly after U.S. forces attacked a suburban Baghdad residence where the CIA believed the Iraqi leader, his sons and his chief aides were hiding.

U.S. officials said they weren't sure whether Hussein had survived the barrage of cruise missiles and 2,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs. The tape isn't proof, since Hussein could have recorded it before the assault.

The man on the seven-minute tape seemed more haggard and subdued than Hussein has in recent appearances. He read awkwardly from a notebook in his hand, repeating himself and flipping through the pages several times as if he had lost his place.

He pleaded with Iraqis to "draw their swords" to repel U.S. invaders, and called the attack a "shameful crime." He gave Thursday's date, March 20, as apparent evidence that he had survived the attack.

A former CIA officer with experience in the Middle East said if it was Hussein, he appeared unnerved, which would be out of character.

"If that was Saddam, we came awful close," the former officer said. "That guy putting on those funny glasses and reading that stupid speech is not the confident, cocky Saddam Hussein. If it's him, he's shaken."

CIA experts were surprised to see the man on TV peering through rectangular-rimmed spectacles with thick lenses. Although Hussein uses reading glasses, he seldom wears them in public.

"We knew he wore glasses, but we'd never seen that particular pair before," said a U.S. official.

Another former CIA officer said the unflattering specs proved Hussein wasn't using a look-alike: "He'd want to use a more debonair double."

Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst, agreed.

"He doesn't look good, and he shouldn't look good," she said. "A 66-year-old man going through stress like that, of course he looks terrible."

Yaphe said that Hussein usually takes pains to dye his hair jet black. The man on TV had patches of gray in his hair. That alone, she said, suggests Hussein is rattled.

"Black hair is a sign of virility for him," she said. "If he's not even taking care of his hair, he's in trouble."

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Hussein "a very vain man" who usually wears a back brace. The man on TV, he said, looked "much older" than Hussein's recent appearances.

Dr. Jerrold M. Post, who has prepared psychological profiles of Hussein for the CIA and now heads the political psychology program at George Washington University, said that whoever is on the tape looked like "he'd been up all night."

"I guess if he did just escape with his life, and he's heard about attempts to decapitate his government, one can assume he's having a major stress reaction," he added.

Experts who search for doubles take special care to study a subject's ears. One official said a person's ears are the visual equivalent of a fingerprint.

Tim Trevan, who served on the United Nations team that helped hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s, argued that the broadcast proved Hussein is alive.

"If he were already killed, why would it be in anyone's interest to pretend he's still alive?" he asked.

"It would be important for someone else to take charge and immediately say, 'OK, America, you've won, now stop the war and go home.' "

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Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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