As U.S. President George W. Bush calls for a regime change in Baghdad, U.S. officials have said they would have few regrets if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were to be killed by his countrymen. But any attempts to target Saddam may be complicated by the fact that the Iraqi president routinely employs look-alikes to take his place at public appearances or to disguise his true whereabouts.
Prague, 9 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- White House spokesman Ari Fleischer summed up the way many U.S. officials feel about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein when he said he would be happy to see him dead.
Fleischer told a press conference in Washington on 1 October that the simplest solution to the Iraq crisis would be the assassination of Saddam Hussein. U.S. law forbids American agencies from assassinating foreign leaders, so Fleischer said he hoped the Iraqi people would take the matter into their own hands and save the U.S. the cost of a large-scale military operation:
"The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than that. The cost of war is more than that. But there are many options that the president hopes the world and people of Iraq will exercise themselves of, that gets rid of the threat."
But targeting the Iraqi leader -- who is famous for the attention he pays to his own security -- is no easy task.
For one thing, Saddam is said to never sleep in the same place two nights in a row. During the 1991 Gulf War, his guards were reported to routinely arrive at dusk at the homes of ordinary Iraqi families to demand they prepare a bed for an unexpected visitor. At the last minute, Saddam himself would arrive at one of the homes to spend the night before leaving again early the next morning.
At the same time, the Iraqi leader is reported to make wide use of look-alikes to take his place at public events. The look-alikes not only fulfill some of his duties, their public appearances also hide the Iraqi leader's true whereabouts.
Falih Abdul Jabbar, a sociologist and researcher at London University in England, says the Iraqi public has long known Saddam employs look-alikes. He says the public has become adept at trying to detect which Saddam -- the real one or a stand-in -- comes to official ceremonies:
"People noticed that when the other guy, or 'the second Saddam,' was there, they could detect this very easily by looking at the bodyguards, who seemed careless, sometimes even laughing. They wouldn't do that in the presence of the real Saddam."
He continues: "Another observation by the public was that Saddam is very well-known among the Iraqis to be a camera-monger. He loves the camera and to be in close-up shots. And they notice that when the other guy, his 'spare part,' as they call him, [was there], the cameras would take faraway shots, rather than zoom in. Hence they would deduce this is not the real Saddam."
Experts say that apart from the way the bodyguards and the cameramen behave, there is often little way for the public to detect which Saddam is before them. The reason is that the doubles -- who are chosen from among men who closely look like the president -- have undergone extensive plastic surgery to further refine the resemblance. One man, Abdul-Latif, defected from Iraq in the mid-1990s after years working as a double for Saddam's son Uday. He said he fled partly to avoid undergoing yet another painful operation to make him even more closely resemble his master.
In an effort to learn more about Saddam's use of doubles, the German public television station ZDF recently asked a forensic specialist to make a scientific study of some 30 films of the Iraqi president taken from 1988 to late last month. The expert, Dieter Buhmann of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Saarland University in Homburg/Saar, found that the pictures reveal there are as many as three Saddam doubles who regularly take the president's place.
Buhmann described his work in a recent interview with RFE/RL: "I received 30 films from ZDF made during the period from 1988 to September 21 of this year, and in those films in which the picture quality was particularly good I found three doubles."
Buhmann says he found the doubles by looking for pairs of pictures in which Saddam's pose was essentially the same. Using a computer graphic program, the scientist marked each picture to highlight such features as the length and width of the head, the size of the eyelids and nostrils, and the forms of the ears and chin. By then overlaying the two pictures, he was able to calculate how closely the features matched, indicating whether the person in the pictures was the same man or not.
The forensic expert confirms that extensive cosmetic surgery has been performed to create the doubles, but that there are limits to what surgery can do:
"You can do a lot with cosmetic surgery. You can change the external form of the ear, for example, or of the earlobes -- that is possible. You can also alter the prominent features either to make them more prominent or to remove them."
He continues: "But what you cannot change is the length and width of the complete head, and that is where one detects the doubles."
Looking at the pictures, Buhmann also concluded that Saddam himself has not appeared in public since 1998 -- that is, until he finally reappeared on 21 September of this year. The expert says that means people viewing images of the Iraqi leader should be very careful about deducing anything about his health or other characteristics until they first have determined whether it is Saddam himself or a look-alike.
With at least three doubles apparently taking Saddam's place in public, it may be little wonder that there have been few assassination attempts on Saddam as he moves around the country. He is also well protected.
Top officials who have defected from Iraq say that Saddam is always surrounded by 18 bodyguards, who are extremely well paid and form a living, protective rampart around him. The guards are responsible for shielding various parts of Saddam's body should he be attacked. The tallest bodyguard is assigned to protect Saddam's head, for example.
Abbas Janabi, a former private secretary to Saddam's son Uday, has reported that Saddam's life was saved in 1983 when one of the bodyguards threw himself against Saddam's chest as the president's car was machine gunned by seven assailants. The bodyguard died. In revenge, Saddam is said to have ordered the assailants' hometown of Al-Dijil to be destroyed, with 3,000 people killed and the rest of the 60,000 inhabitants dispersed.
Whether Saddam's bodyguards would similarly protect one of the president's doubles is unknown. But with the chances of catching the real Saddam in public so low, it seems likely that any assassination of the Iraqi leader would have to come not from the Iraqi people -- as outsiders might hope -- but from within Saddam's innermost circle.
(RFE/RL's Friedemann Woelfel and Jolyon Naegele assisted with this article.)