Saddam a no-show for address
White House says Iraqi leader's status unknown
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The Bush administration Tuesday continued to press for proof that Saddam Hussein is alive after the Iraqi president was a no-show for a televised address to his nation.
An announcement by Iraqi TV that Saddam would speak raised the possibility that he would make an appearance and prove he survived early coalition airstrikes.
Instead, another Iraqi official read a statement said to be from Saddam.
Minutes after Iraqi television announced the address, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf appeared and delivered the statement, which defined the battle in Iraq in religious and pan-Arabic terms.
"Long live Palestine," al-Sahaf read. "Long live Iraq."
There was "a lot of interest here in the White House" when people saw the words "Saddam to appear at noon" at the bottom of their televisions screens, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer at his afternoon briefing.
"And he didn't," he said.
Asked whether the White House had any proof that Saddam was alive or dead, Fleischer said they would share it if they had it.
"We were asked that the day after the initial strike and we said we don't know how he's been feeling today. We don't know how he's been feeling for a couple weeks," he said. "If we did have something hard or concrete to report we would."
Fleischer said he is looking for evidence: live footage of Saddam or images in which he shows something contemporary or makes a reference to something that just took place that day or the night before.
"Then you would have information that he was alive," he said. "We have not seen that, so we don't know. Proof that he was dead would be if you saw a body. We don't know."
Fleischer called the statement, "Nothing new. Nothing original. More rhetoric by a regime that is losing its grip on power."
Fleischer also criticized Iraqi use of suicide bombings.
"The fact that Saddam Hussein would use suicide bombers, that the regime would engage in the most despicable tactics that they have, does suggest the very nature of this regime," he said.
'Let's go and do jihad'
The statement called the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq "an aggression on religion and self and the Islamic nation" and promised that Muslims who die fighting will achieve immortality.
"Let's go and do jihad," al-Sahaf read. "Whoever dies will be rewarded by heaven."
The battle for Baghdad appears imminent. U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Tommy Franks has been given authority to decide when the time is right for coalition forces to begin the siege on the Iraqi capital, Pentagon officials said.
Tuesday night's statement called on Iraqis in Baghdad to "fight [coalition soldiers] as they were fought by your brothers in Basra, in Umm Qasr and Nasiriya," referring to stronger-than-expected resistance that coalition forces have faced in southern Iraq.
"Hit them. Fight them. They are cursed; they are evil," al-Sahaf read. "We will be victorious, and they will be defeated.
"Fight them everywhere. Don't give them a chance to breathe until they withdraw and retreat."
Early coalition airstrikes in Baghdad
The war began nearly two weeks ago with coalition bombs striking a presidential palace in downtown Baghdad on intelligence reports that Iraqi leaders -- possibly even Saddam -- were inside.
Coalition leaders have said they do not know whether Saddam survived or was wounded in that attack.
Saddam's appearances since then have been on videotape, and coalition officials have not been able to confirm those tapes were made after the initial attack.
"None of those sources any more show us that he is still alive," Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday on PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."
"It doesn't mean he's dead. But he's not visible publicly, and he's not been seen or reported to have been seen by anybody."
Earlier this week on "Fox News Sunday," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recent footage of Saddam aired on Iraqi state-controlled television is not legitimate.
Rumsfeld said Saddam prepared "lots" of videos before the war and it's impossible to be certain whether the Iraqi leader and his sons Uday and Qusay were killed in the coalition bombing.
"I don't know what the circumstances of the leadership of the country is," Rumsfeld said. "I don't think people in the country know. We haven't seen any evidence in recent days."
Before Fleischer's briefing, an unidentified Bush administration official criticized the religious plea urging Iraqis to fight.
"Saddam is responsible for many, many deaths of Muslims, Iranians and his own people," the White House official said. "It's ironic that he is trying to wrap himself in the cloak of Islam now."