President Saddam Hussein appeared yesterday on Iraqi satellite television with a stark rallying message for his people that included details of events that took place after the attack that was supposed to have wounded, if not killed, him.
At one point in his talk, he praised an Iraqi farmer for shooting down a U.S. Apache helicopter, an event that took place on March 24, four days after the house where he and his two sons were staying was destroyed by U.S. bombs. At another, he described the "enemy" as having "started to cross the armed forces' defense lines around Baghdad and around other Iraqi cities," again citing recent events.
U.S. intelligence officials believe the videotape offers the best proof yet that Hussein is alive, though at least one senior analyst noted an outside chance that pre-taped statements may have anticipated the crash of U.S. helicopters and claims being made that a farmer had been responsible. "But that is doubtful, and it apparently is him," one senior intelligence official said.
For a week, Pentagon spokesmen had emphasized to reporters the failure of the Iraqi president to appear in public, raising doubts that he was alive and in control -- in effect challenging him to show his face.
The Iraqi leader's message was more downbeat than uplifting, according to some intelligence analysts. He called on Baghdad residents to "resist . . . whenever your enemy comes close to you and dares to attack your beloved city." In closing, he called for a "jihad," a religious war, against the invading enemy, and said: "[O]ur martyrs will be in paradise. Our survivors will be granted glory and pride."
If the Iraqi leader's aim was to be seen by his people, it was not very successful, according to the senior intelligence official, because almost no Iraqi in Iraq can receive satellite transmissions. "Unless they heard it on radio, hardly any Iraqis could see the tape," the official said. He noted that Baghdad television was down and, as of late yesterday, had not returned to broadcast the Iraqi leader's video.
The unannounced speech was followed on the Iraqi satellite channel by another tape in which Hussein, in military uniform, was shown walking during daylight hours in the Al-Mansur neighborhood and in several other sections of Baghdad among people chanting slogans of support. He picked up and kissed one child, and drew hugs from other people.
During one segment, the Iraqi leader climbed atop a car to address the crowd and the camera showed black smoke rising in the horizon. Such smoke has been over Baghdad for days after the Iraqis ignited oil in trenches located around the city. In another part of the footage, where he was shown standing on a corner shaking people's hands, there appeared to be bomb damage to the buildings in the background.
The Iraqi announcer said the tour took place yesterday and covered various neighborhoods on both sides of the Tigris River, which runs through the capital city. In the footage, Hussein was accompanied by his private secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti, and bodyguards in civilian clothes carrying pistols and Kalashnikov rifles.
The Iraqi leader's appearance followed a week of challenges from U.S. and British officials that he show himself and prove that he had not been killed or severely wounded in the attack on him ordered by President Bush, which was the war's opening act.
U.S. officials have said that while Hussein's government appears to remain in control of Baghdad and its environs, proof of his death would have a major impact on the war.
"It would send a shock wave through the rest of the regime and embolden the Iraqi people who would like to celebrate the arrival of coalition forces," one senior administration official said. "They are still more afraid of him. And his own followers think that with him still alive, there is still a chance some miracle will save them all."
Getting Hussein and the top-ranking Iraqi leaders that make up his inner clique remains a key goal of current activities, one senior official said.
At the White House yesterday, before the Hussein tape appeared, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was asked whether Hussein was alive or dead. He replied: "He's either dead or badly injured or a coward hiding in tunnels while young men die."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters on Tuesday that Iraqi command and control "is . . . less strong than it would be if Saddam Hussein were visibly himself on television, which he might be tomorrow for all I know."
That same day, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer noted that Hussein had failed to appear on Baghdad television as promised, which raised questions about whether he was alive. "The fact that he failed to show up for his scheduled appearance today," Fleischer said, "raises additional questions."
Yesterday, after Hussein appeared on satellite television, Fleischer and Pentagon spokesmen initially raised questions about whether the tape was legitimate and then dismissed its importance.
Fleischer said the purpose of the war is "to disarm the regime and change the leadership, and that includes the top layers of the leadership." Given that premise, he went on, "the fate of Saddam Hussein is a factor. But as I indicated, whether he is or is not alive or dead, the mission is moving forward and the regime's days are numbered."
The Pentagon's public affairs chief, Victoria Clarke, said: "We have no idea where the tapes have come from." She added: "I just don't think it's that significant. . . . We haven't seen him publicly. And what really matters is not whether or not he's dead or alive, but the fact that whoever is left in this regime, whatever is left of the regime leadership, got up today and realized they have less and less control of their country."
Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said: "We find it interesting that Saddam Hussein, if he is alive, feels the need to walk in the street to prove that."
Meanwhile, a major military effort is being devoted to closing off any possibility that Hussein may escape from Baghdad.
Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the spokesman for Gen. Tommy R. Franks, told reporters yesterday that an underground command-and-control facility near Tikrit, Hussein's home city, had been heavily attacked on Wednesday "with bombs that penetrate through concrete and cause a detonation beneath."
In addition, Special Forces units were controlling the road between Baghdad and Tikrit "in a variety of ways," Brooks said.
There were earlier reports that Hussein's wife and the relatives of other key leaders had left Baghdad and perhaps had gone to Tikrit, which is being defended by Special Republican Guard troops loyal to the leadership.