Iraqi television has broadcast footage of what appears to be Saddam Hussein taking a rare walk through the streets of Baghdad and the Iraqi government has acknowledged for the first time that U.S. troops are on the outskirts of the city.
Iraqi television Friday, broadcasting footage of crowds mobbing and cheering a man who looked to be Saddam Hussein touring areas of Baghdad in broad daylight after making a televised address urging the Iraqi people to strike back. "Hit them fiercely, hit them, in the force of faith," he said.
The address included for the first time a reference to an event that occurred since the war began the downing of a U.S. military helicopter March 24. It was no doubt an effort to show the Iraqi people and the world that Saddam Hussein is still in charge. But whether this amounted to evidence that he survived an air raid on one of his bunkers, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer is not saying. "Whether it is him, or whether it isn't him, the regime's days numbers are numbered and are coming to an end," he said.
After days of denying that U.S. forces were poised on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahaf acknowledged Friday that American troops were at the gates of the capital.
In comments that followed the capture of Baghdad's international airport by U.S. troops, the Information Minister threatened that Iraq would launch what he called a non-conventional act. He was asked if that meant an attack with chemical or biological weapons. "Not at all, not at all. I mean some kind of martyrdom, guerrilla war, and very well a new way," he said.
Meanwhile, packed vehicles carrying frightened Iraqi civilians were jamming roads in a mass exodus out of Baghdad as the Iraqi capital blacked out by a power outage for a second night, reverberated with more explosions.
American troops have closed in on Baghdad from several directions, trading heavy fire with Iraqi militia Friday night, while preparing to move on the capital, if and when the order is given. But after the surrender of some 2,500 members of Iraq's Republican Guard in the past day, the U.S. Central Command's General Vincent Brooks is not talking about the next steps in the war, waiting first to see how events unfold in Baghdad, while hoping to avoid an urban combat situation if possible. "It's a large city, it's well developed. We know that there are forces that are inside that have the intent to fight within the city," he said. "So we'll be very deliberate about how we do our work regarding Baghdad."
Having gone from Iraq's border with Kuwait to the edge of Baghdad in just two weeks, Pentagon Spokeswoman Victoria Clarke warned the biggest threats to coalition forces could still lie ahead. "We realize that some of the fighting from a desperate, dying regime could be pretty intense," she said.
And even though Iraqi military commanders have lost two of six Republican Guard divisions, Ms. Clarke said "we continue to see the enemy putting military assets in and around schools, hospitals, mosques, homes, embassies, clearly hoping to blame any civilian deaths on coalition forces."
The Bush Administration is already looking beyond the war, with discussions underway on quickly establishing a post Saddam interim government. Secretary of State Colin Powell said "we are anxious to move quickly now that the day of liberation is drawing near. And so we're hard at work on this issue. We want an interim authority that is representative of all the groups who have an interest in the future of Iraq."
But just what role the United States, the United Nations or Iraqis themselves will play in the process is still a matter of discussion, and will be on the agenda when President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair meet in Belfast next week. Countries such as Britain and France want the United Nations to assume a greater role in Iraq's reconstruction. But Secretary of State Powell says the U.S. and British militaries, at least initially, will play the leading role in Iraq's future.