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Airstrikes Slam Baghdad; Allies Close In

Airstrikes Slam Baghdad; Allies Close In

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Huge explosions Wednesday night rocked southern Baghdad, where U.S. forces bore down on the capital's outskirts even as Iraqi TV showed pictures of a laughing and relaxed Saddam Hussein.

A statement attributed to Saddam told the Iraqi people that "victory is at hand."

Saddam wore a military uniform, looking jovial and even laughing at one point as he met with Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and several Cabinet ministers and aides, according to the silent footage shown on state TV.

A news anchor in a military uniform said the Iraqi leader urged his people to rise up, adding that the country's armed forces have yet to display their full battle power.

"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," state TV quoted Saddam as saying.

"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 their example.

State TV also said Saddam met Wednesday with his sons, Odai and Qusai, and top military aides including Iraq's air defense commander. It showed no footage.

There was no way to independently verify when the video footage of Saddam was taken. U.S. officials say they don't know if he is alive, wounded, or dead.

There was little activity Wednesday in the city of 5 million people, with many wondering what the coming days would bring.

Airstrikes Slam Baghdad; Allies Close In

After dusk, flashes of white light could be seen on the southern horizon, followed by explosions. Those neighborhoods are where Iraqi's Republican Guard units are stationed.

The Pentagon said U.S. forces were 30 miles from Baghdad on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, airstrikes hit the sprawling International Trade Fair compound, reducing most buildings to twisted metal, shattered concrete and broken glass. The force of the blast hurtled debris across a road and into the Red Crescent Maternity Hospital.

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 U.S. Central Command in Qatar said it was investigating the report and reviewing its targeting data. In the early afternoon, a thunderous explosion was heard and three plumes of gray smoke rose from the direction of the al-Rasheed military barracks.

Central Command also said coalition forces had used satellite-guided bombs to blast a farm southwest of Baghdad where Saddam's regime maintained "command and control" of its forces. Later, about 40 bombs struck a storage facility in the Al Karkh district of Baghdad where the government kept military and security supplies, U.S. commanders said.

In recent days, telephone exchange bombings have isolated many of Baghdad's residents. At least six phone centers have been hit, and most phone lines are down. Only intermittent service within certain neighborhoods was still available Wednesday.

At the Palestine Hotel, where foreign journalists who remain in Baghdad are staying, the operator could connect only to the Sheraton Hotel across the road.

State TV appealed to Iraqis to hand over to authorities their satellite telephones to make it easier on the government to identify "infiltrating" phone 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.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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