Saddam: Dead? Alive? Irrelevant?

Saddam Hussein is seen March 24 in an image from Iraqi Television. He promised an Iraqi victory and referred to current battles as he praised the Iraqi people's courage. It was not immediately clear if the speech was live, as claimed, or taped.
Since the war started with an air strike aimed at killing him, it has been unclear whether Saddam Hussein was alive or dead.

His television appearances could have been taped before the war, their vague references chosen in advance. The speeches allegedly written by him could have been penned by someone else.

For the first time since the fighting began, a television appearance by a man who appeared to be Saddam on Friday made reference to an event that occurred after the March 20 air strikes on the bunker where he was thought to be sleeping.

The speech made only one topical reference — to the capture of an American helicopter March 23, an Apache that Iraqi officials have said was brought down by farmers in central Iraq.

"Perhaps you remember the valiant Iraqi peasant and how he shot down an American Apache with an old weapon," Saddam said in the brief speech.

Saddam's reference to the Apache attack suggests his message, if taped, was made after the strike aimed at killing him on the opening day of war, a U.S. intelligence official said Friday. The message was some of the strongest evidence yet that Saddam survived the attack.

The official stopped short of saying the video message, which was broadcast on Iraqi television, provided conclusive proof he was still alive and in command.

Saddam also said the U.S.-led forces had "bypassed your (Iraqi) armed defenses" in the battlefield and urged his followers to "strike them forcefully, strike them."

Prior to Friday's statement, some military intelligence analysts have concluded that all of Saddam's television appearances since the beginning of the war in Iraq were prerecorded, most likely before the fighting started.

But the CIA says it has made no such determination.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Thursday that an in-depth analysis of various aspects of the video images has led some analysts to believe the tapes were recorded before the war. The official declined to provide details.

But the CIA, which has analysts with long experience of studying speeches and appearances by foreign leaders, has no conclusive information that suggests when the videotapes were made, officials said. It is possible, but not certain, that they were recorded before the war, they said.

The difference in the military and CIA assessments underscores how many eyes, from a number of government agencies, are looking for signs of the Iraqi president.

Saddam may have ordered prerecorded messages be used to inspire his followers without exposing him to attack, or others in the Iraqi government may be using the tapes to conceal Saddam's death or wounding.

In the past week, Iraqi spokesmen have read two statements allegedly written by Saddam, exhorting Iraqis to defend their country. The fact that Saddam himself was not seen, or even taped, reading the speeches suggested that he was dead or injured or had fled.

U.S. military leaders have increasingly raised questions about Saddam's well-being this week, trying to push him into showing himself, U.S. defense officials said in Washington.

But the Pentagon is now saying that regardless of his status, Saddam has minimal and deteriorating control over his forces.

The Bush administration is now hinting that Saddam's fate is irrelevant. Both the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have reported that the U.S. might declare victory and erect a new administration in Iraq even Baghdad remains under control of Saddam or his regime.