Washington, 5 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Is Saddam Hussein alive and well after all? Yesterday, Iraqi television showed what it said was the Iraqi president touring the streets of his bombed capital shortly after he had read a televised statement calling on citizens to "strike the enemy with force."
In that speech, Hussein said, "You beloved ones, the people of Baghdad and the people of Iraq, the vanguard of victory, with God's help, you will be victorious and they will be, by the will of God, defeated and damned."
Hussein also mentioned the 24 March downing of a U.S. Apache helicopter -- by what Iraq claims was an Iraqi farmer -- in what may be the clearest sign yet that he survived targeted American air strikes in the war's opening salvos, on 20 March.
Later, as thousands of U.S.-led ground forces moved toward Baghdad after a 16-day campaign, a smiling Hussein greeted a mob of chanting Iraqis, strolling in military uniform amid bombed buildings with smoke rising from fires in the distance.
At one point, Hussein held up a small child. "How are you?" he is heard asking visibly surprised citizens, some kissing his hands and cheeks.
It could not be immediately verified when the footage was shot or if the man was actually Hussein, who reportedly had not been seen in public for the last two years.
Hussein has appeared on Iraqi television several times since the start of the war, but until Friday (4 April) none of the footage contained evidence of when the tapes were made. The Iraqi leader is known to use doubles.
U.S. officials were skeptical of the latest appearance. A U.S. military spokesman, Navy Captain Frank Thorp, said the broadcasts had a limited audience as power is out in much of Baghdad.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told a briefing that U.S. intelligence experts would study the latest footage to determine their authenticity. But he also told a White House briefing: "I do know that there was one reference in the tape -- Saddam Hussein saying that coalition forces, or the United States forces, went around the defenses of Baghdad, which of course is not the facts. The facts -- if anybody was there to witness the facts -- the facts are, we attacked the forces defending Baghdad, we hardly went around them."
Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke added, "We haven't seen him [Saddam] 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's leadership, got up today and realized they have less and less control of their country."
Hussein's whereabouts have been the subject of intense speculation since U.S.-led forces bombed sought to "decapitate" the Iraqi government by targeting him and his two sons on the war's opening night.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told the BBC yesterday that despite the nightly bombing of Baghdad, Hussein and his government are intact "The president is well, the leadership are well," Sabri said. "And they are functioning as normal."