Iraqis Doubt Real Hussein Behind Bars

Baghdad — Jassim Abu Ahmed almost spits his disgust at the television set showing yet another image of the dazed and bedraggled Saddam Hussein.

“It’s not him,” Mr. Ahmed says, waving his hand and looking away from the screen. “Everybody knows it’s not him. Why do they keep showing this?”

While Iraq’s new leaders are planning for what they have dubbed “the trial of the century” and claiming a great victory over the Baathist remnants that are still fighting the U.S.-led occupation, many Iraqis remain deeply skeptical that the former dictator has been caught.

In a country where the press was always controlled by the state, and that is now occupied by a foreign power, people have learned not to trust what they see or hear in the media.

And after watching television news reports during the war that talked of Iraqi military victories — even as U.S. troops were entering Baghdad — many now believe they’re still being fed lies. A fuel tanker that exploded in Baghdad Wednesday, killing 10, was first reported as another suicide bombing — then downgraded by U.S. military officials to a mere accident, further adding to the disbelief surrounding Mr. Hussein’s arrest.

Some even saw the report of an eyewitness who has seen Mr. Hussein as part of the grand plan, disbelieving it when Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who was among the handful of people who have visited the ex-dictator since his weekend arrest, went on television Wednesday to announce that Mr. Hussein was “still in greater Baghdad” and would remain in the capital until his trial.

Mr. Ahmed, an athlete who knew Mr. Hussein’s oldest son Uday personally, says he is positive the person the United States is parading as their prize catch is not the former dictator. Mr. Hussein is known to have a tiny tattoo on his left hand, but in the relentlessly replayed video that shows him having his throat checked by a U.S. Army medic — the video that most of the world accepts as footage of the humbled former dictator — the markings are not apparent as Mr. Hussein strokes his straggly beard.

It’s not the only detail that disbelievers have seized on. Others find it strange that Mr. Hussein’s hair is black in the footage, but his beard is white.

“Everyone knows that Saddam dyes his hair, but after eight months hiding in a hole, it’s still black?” asked Diaa, a 37-year-old taxi driver who gave only his first name. “Tell me how this is possible. When they captured [former information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf] after a few weeks, his hair was already white.”

Some, like Mr. Ahmed, believe the ex-dictator’s dead sons are also alive, and that the whole family has struck a deal with U.S. President George W. Bush to live abroad in secret exile.

The rumours have also allowed those who have been fighting in Mr. Hussein’s name to draw continued inspiration.

Rumours that the man captured was a look-alike sparked celebratory riots this week in the Sunni Muslim town of Fallujah.

“It is someone wearing a Saddam mask,” 25-year-old tire repairman Waleed Ibrahim told Associated Press in Fallujah yesterday. “It is a trick to help President Bush get re-elected.”

U.S. armoured vehicles rolled down the town’s main street, blaring messages to the contrary.

“The coalition forces have arrested Saddam Hussein. Reports that it is a Saddam double are false,” a voice declared in Arabic from a loudspeaker. “The old regime will never come back. This is the end of the Baath Party.”