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Saddam pops up on capital street

Baghdad, April 4 (Reuters): Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, breaking his habit of avoiding the public gaze, was shown on Iraqi television on Friday being mobbed by cheering Iraqis in a bombed area of the capital threatened by US troops.

A smiling Saddam greeted mobs of chanting admirers walking amid bomb-damaged buildings with smoke seen from oil fires burning in the distance.

Some kissed him on his cheeks and hands and he held up a small child.

“How are you'” Saddam was heard asking excited and clearly surprised citizens.

“May God protect you, President,” said one Iraqi.

Another man said: “We’ll defend you with our blood and souls, Saddam.”

It could not be immediately confirmed whether the footage released by Iraqi television was shot on Friday. A Reuters driver said he saw a large crowd of people on Friday afternoon in the area of Baghdad which Saddam was said to have visited. He did not see the President.

Saddam, who made similar public tours of parts of Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, is believed to have last been seen in public as long as two years ago. His whereabouts have been the subject of intense speculation since US-led forces bombed Baghdad on March 20 targeting the Iraqi leader and his two sons.

But earlier on Friday in a taped address read on Iraqi television, Saddam provided the first real clue that he had, in fact, survived that attack when he mentioned the downing of an Apache helicopter by an Iraqi farmer 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 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. Iraqi television has repeatedly shown footage of him in what it says are meetings with ministers, most recently on Thursday.

Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri told the BBC that despite nightly bombing of Baghdad, Saddam and his government are intact.

“The President is well, the leadership are well...and they are functioning as normal,” he told BBC.

The Pentagon labelled as “interesting” the videotape depicting Saddam greeting people in Baghdad, adding that officials do not see effective control over the Iraqi military from Iraq’s President.

“We find it interesting that Saddam Hussein, if he is alive, feels the need to walk in the street to prove that,” Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice-director for operations for the US military’s Joint Staff, told a Pentagon briefing.

“What we don’t see is effective command and control from his level. We do see some sort of regime command and control, but effective military command and control, which is normally emanated from the core of the regime, has not been apparent on the battlefield.”

Pentagon chief spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, speaking at the same briefing, said the defence department had “no idea where the tapes have come from. I just don’t think it’s that significant what may or may not be in tapes or when they may have been made”.

“We haven’t seen him 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 leadership, got up today and realised they have less and less control of their country.”

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