Is he or isn't he?

This was the speculation yesterday, though by afternoon some U.S. officials said they thought that yes, he was him.

Everybody was a Saddamologist, having read past reports that Hussein has up to 10 body doubles. Was that one of them on Iraqi television, proving he'd survived our missile attack? You scrutinized the chin, the jowls, the ears, feeling like a cryptologist or a conspiracy theorist, a bit creeped out by the concept of a dictator's clone.

Playing the role of the double, the doppelganger, is an ancient, disturbing ploy.

With the help of a goatskin, Jacob played the hairy Esau for the sake of his blind father's blessing. It has been reported that Mao Zedong employed a double, and that the CIA was able to determine this by studying the imitator's ears. In World War II, Winston Churchill was said to have employed a voice double for his radio addresses. And British actor M.E. Clifton-James impersonated Field Marshal Montgomery to fool the Nazis about Monty's whereabouts and plans.

The body-double doubles as a fantasy in our cultural plotlines. In goatskin, we can all reap the spoils of being someone else. Consider the movie "Dave," in which Kevin Kline plays a man impersonating the president who then becomes the president. Or Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper," in which poor Tom Canty switches clothing with Prince Edward.

Then there's Britney Spears. Alarmed by an apparent stalker, the fluffy pop star reportedly started traveling with doubles recently. There is prestige in this, as if Britney's mythos is too big to be inhabited by just one woman alone. There is prestige, too, in the actress who gets a body double for her sex scene. Modesty is a privilege of stardom.

But consider the double's point of view.

The problem with becoming someone else is what you unbecome. So discovered Latif Yahia, who was the body double of Saddam Hussein's son Uday for 4 1/2 years in the late '80s and into the '90s, surviving numerous assassination attempts before he escaped at the end of the Persian Gulf War. Yahia, now 38 and living in Dublin, wrote a book about his experiences, called "I Was Saddam's Son."

Yahia and Uday went to secondary school together in Baghdad, where schoolmates often mistakenly thought the two were related because they looked alike. Yahia says he was imprisoned and threatened with the rape of his sister before he agreed to act as Uday's double. To do this, he had to have new teeth implanted and plastic surgery done on his chin, he says.

He was made to watch videotapes of Uday, to study how the man walked and talked, and to watch videotapes of torture and rape "to be strong like Uday, to not care anymore, to be an animal like him," he says. He was outfitted with Uday's signature black uniform and visited his same barber. His family considered him dead and held a funeral for him.

In time, this came to be true, in a way. Whereas as a child, Yahia says, "I was so quiet, I was so soft," the years as a double made him hard and quick to anger. Since then, he has undergone counseling to undo the damage.

Who is the double outside the role he plays?

"I've interviewed undercover narcotics officers," says Jerrold M. Post, who heads the political psychology program at George Washington University. "One of the hazards for some of them is finding the life on the street as a drug lord and that kind of fast life rather more exciting than that of the policeman."

Or not. There is another purpose of the double, and that is not to fool but to provoke. Impressions are a staple of stand-up comedy. Humor magnifies foibles, deflates icons. Which brings us to Jerry Haleva, who may be the best known face of Saddam Hussein aside from Saddam himself (and, perhaps, the dictator's doubles).

A Jewish lobbyist who lives in Sacramento, Haleva fell into portraying Saddam because of a striking physical likeness. He played him in "The Big Lebowski," "Hot Shots!" and "Hot Shots! Part Deux." And with few exceptions, Haleva plays Saddam only in parodied form.

"If I can add any levity to what's truly a tragic and horrific situation I'm happy to do it," Haleva says. Though, he adds, "Now is probably not the time for it."

The real Saddam Hussein or just someone with a double chin?Latif Yahia, left, was an Iraqi double; Winston Churchill was said to have used a voice double; and Britney Spears reportedly employs her own look-alikes.