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Explosions, Machine-gun Fire Reported in Baghdad Late Friday - 2003-04-05

Iraqi television has broadcast footage said to be Saddam Hussein walking through the streets of Baghdad after the Iraqi government acknowledged for the first time that U.S. troops are on the outskirts of the city.

Thousands of people Friday were reported to be fleeing Baghdad amid a warning from the government of what it said would be an unconventional attack on coalition forces now controlling the southern approaches to city, and waiting for their next orders.

Iraqi television Friday, broadcasting footage of crowds cheering a man purporting to be Saddam Hussein touring areas of Baghdad after making a televised address to the Iraqi people, in an apparent effort to remove any doubt about who is in charge of Iraq. "Hit them fiercely, hit them, in the force of faith," said Saddam.

For the first time since the war began, the address included a reference to an event that occurred after the start of the war, the downing of a U.S. military helicopter March 24. Whether this was evidence that he survived an initial coalition 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 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 Friday acknowledged that American troops were at the gates of the capital, and he threatened them with what he would only call an non-conventional act. He was asked if that meant an attack with chemical or biological weapons. "Not at all, not at all," he answered. "I mean some kind of martyrdom, guerrilla war, and very well a new way."

Thousands of frightened Iraqi civilians, meanwhile, were reported to heading northward out of Baghdad. Roads have been crammed with bumper to bumper traffic, as the Iraqi capital reverberated with the sound of more explosions and Iraqi anti-aircraft fire.

American troops have now closed in on Baghdad from several directions, preparing to take the capital, once the order is given. But after the surrender of some 2,500 members of Iraq's Republican Guard in the past day alone, the U.S. Central Command's General Vincent Brooks suggests troops may hold their fire, hoping to avoid an urban combat situation if they can. "It's a large city, it's well developed," he said. "We know that there are forces that are inside that have the intent to fight within the city. 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 warns 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, she 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," Ms. Clarke added.

Here in Washington, the Bush administration is already looking beyond the war, with discussions underway on quickly establishing a post Saddam interim government. "We are anxious to move quickly now that the day of liberation is drawing near," said Secretary of State Colin Powell. "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 said in Brussels Thursday the U.S. and British militaries, at least initially, will play the leading role in Iraq's future.