BAGHDAD, Iraq - Declaring “victory is at hand,’’ Saddam Hussein issued a new statement urging Iraqis to continue fighting in defense of their towns, according to a broadcast Wednesday on Iraqi satellite television.
Two additional statements Wednesday were also attributed to Saddam - a warning to Iraqi Kurdish leaders who are cooperating with U.S. forces in northern Iraq, and an offer of cash rewards to those who help identify spies for the U.S.-led coalition.
Saddam did not read the statements on the air and there was immediate way to verify he authored them. American officials say they don’t know if he is alive, wounded, or dead.
Late Wednesday, Iraqi state television showed footage of Saddam meeting with Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and several Cabinet ministers and aides. The footage, which was silent, showed Saddam in a military uniform looking relaxed and even laughing at one point.
Meanwhile, the bombardment of the Baghdad area continued Wednesday.
Air strikes hit the sprawling Baghdad International Trade Fair compound, reducing most buildings to twisted metal, shattered concrete and broken glass. Located in the upscale district of Al-Mansour, the center’s military importance to American-led forces wasn’t immediately clear.
The center hosts an annual trade show, one of the largest in the Arab world. The force of Wednesday’s blast hurtled debris across a road and into the Red Crescent Maternity Hospital.
There were initial reports of injuries and damage, but no other information was immediately available.
The U.S. Central Command in Qatar said it is investigating the report, reviewing its targeting data.
Also, a thunderous explosion was heard south of Baghdad, from the direction of the al-Rasheed military barracks. Afterward, three gray smoke plumes rose from the area.
In recent days, telephone exchange bombings have isolated many of the city’s 5 million residents. At least six phone centers have been hit, and most phone lines are down. Intermittent service within certain neighborhoods was still available on Wednesday.
“I can only reach the Sheraton Hotel across the road,’’ said the Palestine Hotel operator. Foreign journalists who remain in Baghdad are staying at the hotel. “I have no work to do,’’ the operator said. “No local calls and no international calls.’’
The Al-Rasheed telephone exchange in the heart of the capital suffered major damage in a strike Wednesday. The nine-story building on the Tigris River’s east bank was still standing, albeit precariously.
Al-Rasheed was targeted last week but the missile apparently missed, lodging
yards away, causing only slight damage.
Another telephone exchange, in the Bab al-Moazam district, was hit Wednesday for the second time. It had already sustained severe damage.
Citing an “authorized source,’’ state television appealed to Iraqis on Wednesday to hand over to authorities their satellite cell telephones to make it easier on the government to identify “infiltrating’’ telephone transmissions.
It said the government would return the phones after the war, adding that some British and U.S. intelligence agents have used them to relay information about “vital targets’’ in Iraq.
The statement said that failing to hand over the phones would bring offenders under the full weight of the law, “which doesn’t show mercy on traitors.’’
The statement to Iraqi Kurdish leaders was read Wednesday night on Iraqi state television by Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf.
“I advise you not to rush and do something that you’ll regret so long as you know that this leadership and the government it leads in the face of invaders will remain,’’ Saddam told Jalal Talbani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
“It is my moral and constitutional duty to warn you of the dangers of the game this time round if you and others persist in taking part. The Zionist entity and America are pushing you today toward a situation into which you’re coerced and have no control of,’’ Saddam warned Talbani in the message that, according to Sahhaf, was copied to the other main Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani.
Iraq’s state television reported Saddam met Wednesday with his sons, Odai and Qusai, and top military aides including Iraq’s air defense commander. It showed no footage.
In the latest statement attributed to the Iraqi leader, a news anchor in military uniform said Saddam repeatedly urged his people to rise up, saying the country’s armed forces have yet to display their full battle capabilities.
“Fight them so that Iraq, the bastion of religion and principles, will be secured and our (Islamic) nation will come out of this crisis glorious,’’ the statement read. “Fight them. Victory is at hand, God willing, although we have only utilized a third or less of our army while the criminals have used everything they brought in.’’
The statement singled out the 11th Division of the Iraqi army and Baath Party members in Nasiriyah and other southern towns who have “exhausted’’ the coalition forces and urged Iraqis to follow heir example in defending their cities.
The statement, which was monitored in Doha, Qatar, differed from a Tuesday night broadcast in which Saddam asked Iraqis to wage jihad, or holy war, against U.S.-led forces. It was read by Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf.
Saddam has appeared in two televised speeches since the war began on March 20 - one in the opening hours of the fighting and another four days later.