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Since 1st March, 1999
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Dead or alive' Suspense over Saddam

March 21: One question rose above the deafening explosions in Baghdad: is Saddam Hussein alive'

British and US officials said today they were unable to confirm a media report that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could have been killed in the first air strike on Baghdad.

Britain’s defence chief, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, told BBC that he was unable to confirm the channel’s report quoting a UK government official as saying that Saddam had probably been killed in the first attacks on Iraqi leadership targets.

“I’m certainly unaware of Saddam Hussein’s status at the moment,” Boyce added.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair also said he had no information on the reports. “No one can answer the question on Saddam, the evidence is inconclusive. We just don’t know,” he said.

A US official also told Reuters “we don’t know” when asked about Saddam’s fate.

Iraqi officials today rebuffed speculation their leader had been killed, saying Saddam was safe after two nights of US-led strikes on Baghdad aimed at Iraqi leaders.

“They targeted the houses of Saddam Hussein and his family but they are safe. They are safe,” information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf told a news conference.

Saddam last appeared on Iraqi television early yesterday, hours after the first wave of strikes on Iraq. A tired-looking Saddam read from a prepared text, wearing heavy black-framed spectacles, something he rarely does in public, which had led to some speculation about whether it in fact was the Iraqi leader.

In Saddam’s speech, the Iraqi leader pointedly referred to the time of the attack, dawn in Baghdad, to stress he had survived what US officials said was an attempt to “decapitate” his government.

“At dawn prayers... the criminal, reckless little Bush and his aides committed this crime which he was threatening to commit against Iraq and humanity,” he said.

But US officials said a CIA analysis of Saddam’s speech could not determine if the tape was made before or after the attack. So the agency offered no clue about whether he survived, the officials said in Washington. The CIA, however, concluded that it was Saddam’s voice delivering the speech.

“I don’t know how Saddam is feeling today,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

“The CIA’s assessment of the tape is that it does appear to be the voice of Saddam Hussein,” he said. “But there is no conclusive evidence about whether that was taken before or after operations began. That’s not known,” Fleischer said.

“It would not be surprising if he did make videos ahead of time. In this instance, we don’t have anything conclusive to report one way or another,” Fleischer said.

The US opened its war to topple Saddam on Wednesday by bombing a residence compound in the southern suburbs of Baghdad near the Tigris River where he was believed to have been with his two sons.

Saddam and his two sons Qusay and Uday were believed to have been inside the residence at the time of the strikes by F-117A stealth fighters and long-range cruise missiles.

“We believe it is most likely that he and the boys were somewhere in the compound,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.

“Were they killed' We don’t know. Were they wounded' We don’t know. Are they alive' We don’t know,” he said.

US officials say there were casualties from the strike, but they do not know how many or their identities.

“You don’t drop 40 cruise missiles and not hurt somebody,” the official said. “We have a strong belief that there were casualties but I can’t tell you what their names were.”

ABC News reported that witnesses saw Saddam being taken out of a bombed building on a hospital gurney and with an oxygen mask on his face.

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