Baghdad, April 4 (Reuters): Iraqi television showed footage of what it said was President Saddam Hussein visiting residential areas of Baghdad today, hours after the US military said it had taken control of the city’s airport.
Wearing a green military uniform and with a pistol at his waist, Saddam moved slowly through a crowd of cheering and chanting Iraqis, almost all men. Some kissed him on his cheeks and hands and he held up a small child.
“We’ll defend you with our blood and souls, Saddam,” one man said.
The 65-year-old leader looked relaxed and smiled broadly as he paused to chat with citizens of his embattled capital in what, if the pictures are genuine, could be his first appearance in public for about two years.
There was no way of verifying when the film was made but a Reuters driver said he saw a large crowd of people this afternoon in the area of Baghdad which Saddam was said to have visited. He did not see the President. Saddam, who has a number of doubles, made similar public tours of parts of Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War.
But witnesses noted that oil fires could be seen burning in the background in today’s footage. Iraqis lit oil trenches at the start of this war, hoping to confuse US warplane pilots and they are still burning.
Earlier today, the US said it had taken control of Saddam International Airport, just 20 km southwest of the capital. “How are you'” Saddam was heard asking excited and clearly surprised citizens.
“May God protect you, President,” said one Iraqi.
Saddam also mentioned the shooting down of a US Apache helicopter by an Iraqi farmer in late March, indicating that he survived the first days of the war. It appeared to be the first clear evidence that he had survived a US bombing raid on March 20, first night of the American aerial attacks against Baghdad which targeted him and his two sons.
Saddam has made several pre-recorded appearances on Iraqi television since then but it is not clear when those tapes were made, fuelling speculation over whether he was still alive.
The Apache incident was first reported by Iraqi officials on March 24.
“The enemy is overtaking our valiant defences around Baghdad just like it did around other cities and they (enemy) are avoiding clashes...,” Saddam said in his address.
“They are deploying here and there, just like we expected, and these deployments are normally thin and we can confront them with the weapons available, and you recall the Iraqi peasant that downed an Apache with his rifle.”
Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf announced on March 24 that Iraqi farmers had shot down two Apaches. US defence officials confirmed that an Apache Longbow was downed in Iraq but had no comment on claims that a second helicopter was shot down.
Saddam’s address came as US forces took control of Baghdad international airport 20 kmfrom the Iraqi capital.
He urged the people of Baghdad to “strike the enemy with force” and predicted victory over the invading US and British troops.
“Hit them with force, resist them, oh people of Baghdad whenever they advance upon your city and remain true to your principles, your faith and your honour,” said Saddam, dressed in a green military uniform. It was not clear when the statement was filmed.
Saddam is believed to have last been seen in public as long as two years ago.