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Last Updated:  Friday, 4 April, 2003, 22:04 GMT 23:04 UK
Saddam rallies Iraqis on TV

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has made two dramatic appearances on state television just hours after US forces seized Baghdad's main airport.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein has been elusive since the start of the war
The TV said scenes showing the president being mobbed by cheering crowds and at one point hugging a baby took place in Baghdad on Friday.

If confirmed, this would be the Iraqi leader's first public appearance since the war started on 20 March.

Although some US officials have suggested the man may have been a double of the Iraqi leader, the BBC's Paul Wood says a group of Iraqis who watched the broadcast with him were convinced they were seeing their president.

Earlier in a televised speech, Saddam Hussein urged fellow Iraqis to repel coalition forces around Baghdad and "hit them hard".

It was not clear when or where the speech was recorded. But US intelligence officials said a reference to an Apache helicopter shot down by an Iraqi farmer suggested that it was made after the air strike which targeted him and his sons on the first night of the war.

The Iraqi leader also mentioned US military gains around the capital and other cities, saying the invading forces had "by-passed Iraq's defensive lines."

BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy said there seemed to be two aims to Saddam Hussein's address: To show the world he is still alive and still in charge, and to mobilise the people of Baghdad for the tough fight that lies ahead.

Saddam Hussein

But the US Defence Department played down the new recordings, with spokeswoman Victoria Clarke insisting "we haven't seen him publicly."

The speech came hours after the US military said its forces were securing Baghdad's international airport - just 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the city centre - after soldiers fought their way in on Thursday night.

US commanders were quoted by Reuters news agency as saying hundreds of US soldiers are to reinforce Baghdad airport overnight.

A US spokesman said they had soundly defeated Iraqi resistance at the airport, including, he believed, elements from the Special Republican Guard.

But buses full of Iraqi soldiers were seen heading there on Friday and Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf threatened "unconventional action" on Friday night against coalition forces at the airport.

However he told a Baghdad news conference that this did not imply weapons of mass destruction: " What I meant are commando and martyrdom [suicide] operations in a very new, creative way."

On Friday night small arms fire could be heard in Baghdad and there were reports of explosions.

In other military developments:

  • US troops say they have found thousands of boxes containing vials of unidentified liquid and powder as well chemical warfare manuals at the Latifiya industrial site south of Baghdad

  • A car explosion at a US military checkpoint north-west of Baghdad kills three American soldiers, as well as the driver and a pregnant woman passenger

  • US Central Command says it has received reports that about 2,500 Iraqi Republican Guards have surrendered to US marines between Baghdad and Kut, about 170 kilometres (105 miles) away

  • A US commander who led a push by marines through southern Iraq has been relieved of his post, but the reasons for the decision have not been disclosed

  • The US military says it has inflicted heavy damage on the al-Nida division of the Republican Guard

  • A US journalist "embedded" with coalition forces in Iraq , Michael Kelly of the Washington Post, is killed in an accident involving a vehicle.

UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said the airport's capture was a "huge psychological blow" to Saddam Hussein.

"It demonstrates to the regime and the people of Baghdad that we're there," he told the BBC.

The attack began on Thursday evening with troops, backed by F-15E and F18 warplanes, moving in to seize the runway.

This battle will be won by America and its allies at a great cost to innocent Iraqi people
Mohammad Shoaib, New Delhi, India

Pentagon officials said on Friday they were still concerned about pockets of resistance, possible snipers and even Iraqi forces armed with portable anti-aircraft missiles.

BBC Pentagon correspondent Nick Childs says that even when the US-led forces start using the airport, it will initially probably only be in a limited way, perhaps to bring in extra security forces.

At least 320 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the fighting for the airport, US military sources said. According to the AFP news agency, two US servicemen were killed.

In other developments:

  • US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to meet for talks on Iraq next week

  • French, German and Russian foreign ministers met in Paris to discuss the "urgent humanitarian situation" in Iraq

  • The first convoy of UN emergency food aid - about 1,000 tons of wheat flour - crosses into northern Iraq from Turkey, headed for Dohuk

  • Red Cross lorries from Kuwait are carrying medical aid destined for Basra, while UN experts assess humanitarian needs in the southern town of Umm Qasr.

The BBC's Rageh Omaar
"Black smoke from the oil fires shows that this is recent footage"

Saddam Hussein on Iraqi TV
"Hit them hard, hit them by the power of your faith"

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