London, March 24 (Reuters): The voice, the face, the manner were vintage Saddam Hussein — but experts say today’s broadcast by the Iraqi leader gave no concrete proof as to whether he is alive or dead.
Most believed it showed Saddam in robust form.
As evidence, they cited the look, sound and swagger of a man who favours florid rhetoric to rally his people and heap scorn on the “evil ones” bent on conquering “the sacred land” of Iraq.
But Saddam’s principal enemies in the five-day-old war — the US and Britain — cast doubt on the Iraqi leader’s apparent health and commanding presence.
“What I can say straight away is that those pictures were not live,” said British defence secretary Geoff Hoon.
“We are well aware that he spent many hours recently tape-recording various messages. We have to do a little more analysis of what he was actually saying to see whether or not that was Saddam Hussein,” Hoon told reporters.
Even if it was Saddam as most analysts believe — this was the second Saddam speech broadcast of the Iraq war — Washington said it proved nothing about his grip on Iraq’s power structure.
Not since the US-led forces tried to kill al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001 has there been such rampant media speculation on the whereabouts of one man.
“One hundred per cent it is Saddam Hussein,” said an activist whose latest of many meetings with Saddam was last month.
“This is his accent, these are his words, this is his speech and his style,” the Lebanese activist said in Beirut. “This is his way. This is him without hesitation.”
Saddam, well-versed in the sort of psychological warfare that comes with combat, will have known that such a broadcast would dim speculation that he had been killed or wounded in early US air raids.
He even made mention of ongoing battle sites, bolstering the tape’s credibility, but military experts said the place names bandied around would have been obvious locations for conflict before the first shot of the war was fired.
The US-British allies, too, would know that fanning rumours about his fate could either force Saddam to emerge from cover, enabling forces to take a new shot at him, or else unsettle his top commanders into early surrender.
“We’re in the middle of a fairly intense psy-ops campaign…. The whole American strategic plan is based on triggering a coup so they don’t have to fight in Baghdad,” Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Warwick University in England, said.
“He’s alive and as well as you and me.”
Saddam, who usually appears in spacious marble palaces, sat before a white drape for today’s appearance in a makeshift touch that lent credibility to the broadcast, he said.
“It was put together much more hastily than the normal output. This was ‘I’m still alive, let's keep fighting’.”
Saddam would be anxious to avoid new intelligence-led raids on any hideout and anyway rarely appears live on television.
“He has always been terribly wary about US technology. If you do it live, one can find out where the broadcast is coming from and a Tomahawk missile will arrive soon afterwards,” Antoine Basbous, head of the Paris-based Observatory of Arab Countries, told France 2 television.
As for reports that Saddam was so badly wounded in the opening US raid that he needed a blood transfusion — forget it, say the experts.
“Assuming that this broadcast was made after the attack on Saddam’s bunker last Thursday, he looks in remarkably good health for somebody who is supposed to have had a blood transfusion and was badly injured,” his biographer Con Coughlin said. “The balance of probability is that Saddam is alive and well.”
Iraq’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammed Aldouri, said today he believed Saddam was alive.