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On tape, Saddam rallies Iraqis; experts question when speech was made

WASHINGTON—Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appeared on state-run television Monday, exhorting his people to defeat "the aggressors and occupiers" in an effort by the Baghdad government to show that it remains firmly in power five days into a U.S. invasion.

There's a growing consensus that the Iraqi leader and most of his inner circle probably survived a strike on a command bunker Wednesday and that he may be emboldened by recent setbacks encountered by U.S. and British forces, U.S. intelligence officials said.

Government and private experts in the United States and Israel said they had no doubt that the man on the tape is Saddam. When the tape was made is less clear, they said.

In it, Saddam names a number of southern Iraqi cities where battles have taken place and cites by name several Iraqi military units and their commanders.

However, analysts said, the Iraqi leader easily could have guessed beforehand which cities the United States and Great Britain would try to take first. And some of the units he cited have not seen major battlefield action.

A U.S. intelligence official said the Bush administration is awaiting more conclusive proof of Saddam's fate.

"He needs to give the Maryland basketball score (from Sunday)," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

President Bush authorized a cruise missile and fighter attack Wednesday night on a government bunker in southern Baghdad where, intelligence indicated, Saddam and many of his top aides were spending the night.

Senior U.S. officials originally said they believed that the "decapitation" strike probably injured or killed the Iraqi leader and some of his inner circle.

But the latest developments raise questions over whether the intelligence was accurate or whether the bunker complex was larger or deeper than U.S. officials thought.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who often serves as the regime's public face, said at a news conference in Baghdad that Saddam was "in full control of the army and the country" and that the Iraqi leadership was "in good shape."

Assuming he's alive, Saddam is likely to be confident, perhaps even overconfident, that his strategy of inflicting pain on the United States and weakening American resolve is working, say experts who have studied him for years.

"He's not fighting a military campaign. He's fighting a public affairs campaign," said a State Department official, who requested anonymity.

If Saddam is alive and his regime is intact, that could explain why the hoped-for surrenders of several key Republican Guard divisions have not occurred and why Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led attacks has been stiffer than expected, this official and others said.

Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer at Tel Aviv's Bar Ilan University who has been listening to Saddam in his original Arabic for more than 15 years, said the latest tape seemed recent.

He estimated Monday evening that it was made "very early this morning or late last night," based on specific references to Iraqi military units at the cities of Umm Qasr, Basra and Nasiriyah.

Significantly, Kedar concluded that the tape was a product of not just Saddam but of his entire inner circle.

"I don't think that this regime is being dismantled or deteriorating. They are still sticking to each other, waiting for the stage when Kalashnikov will face the M-16," he said. "In this kind of war, the United States of America has no advantage because it's one by one, man on man, rifle against rifle."

As proof, he said, it was clearly written by someone else because Saddam read some high-brow Koranic Arabic that spoke of ridding the infidels from Muslim soil and flubbed some of the pronunciation, something veteran listeners expect from Iraq's secular leader.

Judith Yaphe, a former Iraq analyst at the CIA, also said Saddam seems to have survived a close call.

"He's alive ... I think we must have gotten pretty close," said Yaphe, now at the National Defense University in Washington.

U.S. officials said the guessing game over Saddam's fate is made more difficult by the fact that the Iraqi leader, both during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and since, tends to speak in flowery generalities. That makes it hard to pin down the dates and times of his appearances.

The latest Saddam tape also has a jumpy quality, officials said, which could indicate that it was pre-taped, and then edited to remove references that would have given that fact away.

Saddam biographer Amatzia Baram said he saw significant omissions from Saddam's speech, indicating it was cleverly taped before the war based on certain Iraqi assumptions on how the U.S. would attack.

Specifically, he noted that there were no explicit references to ongoing battles at Basra and Nasiriyah, no references to the first seizure of American POWs and no taunting of the Bush administration over last week's failed assassination attempt.

All would have been part of the script, if it were fresh, said Baram, a Haifa University professor in Israel who has studied Saddam's speeches for years.

"What's strange is what's missing. I would expect him to say, if he had really been making this videocassette yesterday or the day before, `I'm alive and well, and the whole thing is a bluff.' What a wonderful propaganda tool," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.