Hussein Speaks and Questions Persist
The CIA believes that Saddam Hussein’s television appearance Monday was authentic but possibly taped, providing no clear answer as to whether the Iraqi president had survived a strike by U.S. forces last week.
Even so, intelligence officials said the Baghdad government appeared to be functioning after days of intensive bombing, suggesting that even if Hussein was seriously injured or killed, his regime had not collapsed.
One official noted that top members of Hussein’s regime, including Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, continued to make public appearances.
“If the entire government collapsed, people would probably be reluctant to go out and talk about how swimmingly things are going,” the official said.
Although “the regular army is not putting up much of a fight,” the official said, the paramilitary forces known as the Fedayeen Saddam who are loyal to Hussein and some loyalists in his Baath Socialist Party were striking in ways that suggest some level of coordination.
In his latest television appearance, Hussein’s references to the shape of the war so far suggested that the remarks were current. He noted, for instance, that the U.S. had attacked with ground troops and were not just “using aircraft and rockets and missiles as they did before.”
He congratulated the “Iraqi moujahedeen” for inflicting casualties on the invading forces and vowed to drag out the war to turn it into a “quagmire” for the United States.
Later in the speech, Hussein praised Iraqi commanders and units fighting in the south.
But U.S. officials said some of those singled out had already capitulated.
“Some of these people are already in U.S. custody,” the intelligence official said, raising questions of whether Hussein’s remarks were taped before the attacks.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “The latest tape gives no reason for anybody to think that this is anything fresh.”
Britain’s defense minister was more emphatic, saying the comments were not broadcast live. The British government has information that Hussein had prepared a number of television messages, Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said, suggesting that the Iraqi government might be trying to fool Iraqis with the broadcasts of his speeches.
“What I can say straightaway is that those pictures were not live, and therefore clearly there is still the possibility of Saddam Hussein’s people issuing tape recordings,” Hoon said. “We are well aware that he has spent many hours recently tape-recording various messages, so we have to do a little more analysis of what was actually said.”
In the TV appearance, Hussein wore his military uniform and appeared to be standing before a white sheet that gave no indication of where he was.
The Hussein shown Monday appeared far more collected and coherent than the disheveled figure who appeared on Iraqi television several hours after the initial predawn attack Thursday.
Gone were the oversized glasses, the pallid complexion and the notebook he flipped through while delivering his remarks.
The CIA continues to field contradictory reports on whether Hussein and his sons were wounded in the strike on the palace compound on the southern outskirts of Baghdad.
In the capital, Deputy Prime Minister Aziz insisted that Hussein and members of the Iraqi leadership were safe. “Saddam Hussein is in total control of his country,” Aziz said.
Seemingly emboldened by events of the last few days, in which coalition forces met with resistance on their march to Baghdad, Aziz taunted Vice President Dick Cheney and other U.S. officials, saying their predictions that the Iraqi army would crumble and its people hail the arrival of American troops were proving untrue.
U.S. forces “will be received with bullets, not flowers,” Aziz said. He also said regular Iraqi army units -- and not members of the Republican Guard -- were responsible for the skirmishes that have killed coalition forces in southern Iraq in recent days.
Nevertheless, senior U.S. military officials said they continued to see signs that Hussein’s control of his government and forces was slipping.
At the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said the U.S. military was “seeing evidence that orders that are being issued [by Iraq] are not being executed in many cases.”
McChrystal declined to elaborate. He is vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Separately, U.S. officials said a suspected chemical weapons compound seized by U.S. forces near the city of Najaf on Sunday did not appear to have such materials and had not been a suspected site since the mid-1990s.
Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in London contributed to this report.