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Unseen Saddam roars, US armour rolls

Baghdad, April 1 (Reuters): President Saddam Hussein called on fellow Iraqis in a written statement today to fight US-led invaders, as US armoured units resumed their push toward Baghdad.

In a message attributed to him and read out on state television, Saddam told the nation: “Hit them, fight them ... Fight them everywhere.”

Saddam, 65, did not appear personally. He has been seen twice on television since the war began 13 days ago but there was no way to verify when those appearances were recorded. In recent days, US warplanes have subjected Baghdad to a tremendous battering.

Saddam’s message this time, unaccompanied by images of the leader, was read out by information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf.

Wall Street shares rallied after Saddam did not deliver the message in person.

“You see the market rallying right now and the only reason why is that Saddam didn’t come out on TV,” said Taai Izushima, head trader for Daiwa Securities. The call for jihad followed more fighting in the south, air raids on the Iraqi capital, more civilian deaths — including children — in an air raid, and checkpoint killings that have further fired Arab anger.

The latest deaths of Iraqi children came in an overnight raid on the town of Hilla, about 80 km south of this battered city.

They were bound further to damage US efforts to win Iraqi hearts and minds — an undertaking ridiculed by Baghdad and which US officers admit is proving harder than expected.

Reuters reporters with invading US and British troops said a pause of several days in their advance towards Iraq’s capital — hit again today by bombs and missiles — appeared to be over and the armour was on the move again. “It seems as though the operational pause in our sector is over. We’ve swung from passivity to activity quite quickly,” Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire said from central Iraq.

US troops have been on edge since a suicide bomber blew himself up and killed four soldiers at a checkpoint last Saturday but officers say no change has been ordered in rules of engagement. Iraq promised more such suicide bombers, calling them “a time bomb.”

The outskirts of Baghdad were again heavily bombed today, particularly in the south. Huge plumes of white smoke rose on the horizon. Iraq said the latest attacks there had killed 24 civilians, 19 overnight and five today. Reuters correspondents in the city said the almost constant bombing had made many residents determined to carry on with their lives and defy invading forces.

“We’re fed up, we’re terrified of this war but we’re willing to put up with all this rather than see the Americans in our country ruling us,” said Mona Fathi, 34, an academic.

Minister Sahaf said US-led air raids over the past day had killed a total of 56 civilians throughout the country. Iraq has put the total civilian deaths to date at 653 but there was no way to independently verify this figure.

President George W. Bush launched the war to oust Saddam, whom he accused of hiding weapons of mass destruction. So far, none have been found.

Reuters reporters taken by Iraqi officials to a hospital in Hilla saw 11 bodies, apparently civilians.

Residents said they were killed when US bombs hit the residential area. Sahaf said nine of the dead were children.

“What has he done wrong, what has he done wrong'” demanded the driver of the truck carrying the bodies, as he held the corpse of an infant.

At a televised news conference today, Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan said 6,000 volunteer fighters had arrived in Iraq. More than half were suicide fighters.

He said: “They are a time bomb, you’ll hear about them soon ... We want each and every one of these martyrs to do their duty and kill as many of these invading bastards as possible.”

Many of the checkpoints are aimed at protecting long supply lines, often attacked by Iraqi forces and stretching some 350 km back into Kuwait.

US Marines today shot dead an unarmed driver and badly wounded his passenger at a roadblock south of Baghdad, a day after seven women and children were killed in a similar checkpoint shooting near the Shia holy city of Najaf.

The checkpoint deaths were a blow to US and British hopes of persuading Iraqis to welcome an invasion whose stated goal is to oust Saddam, not combat the people. They also fuelled anger across the Arab world.

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