BAGHDAD (Reuters)– Iraqi President Saddam Hussein–breaking his habit of avoiding the public gaze–was shown on Iraqi television on Friday being mobbed by cheering Iraqis in a bombed area of the capital threatened by US troops.
"Our soul and blood we will sacrifice for you–Saddam,” the excited crowd–made up mainly of men–shouted. Some kissed his hand–a few waved rifles in the air.
Dressed in military uniform–Saddam’s surprise appearance in the streets of Baghdad coincided with the advance of US troops who said on Friday they had taken control of Saddam International Airport–20 km (12 miles) southwest of the city.
In some of the television footage–smoke could be seen–believed to be from trenches filled with oil and set ablaze by Iraqis to try to obscure targets from attacking aircraft. It was impossible to confirm the exact date of the video.
Earlier–the president who is known to have doubles and who was last thought to have been seen in public some two years ago–appeared on television urging resistance against the invaders.
Saddam referred to the shooting down of an US Apache helicopter on March 24–a remark seen as the first clear evidence that he had survived a US bombing raid on the first night of the war–March 20 – aimed at killing him and his two sons.
As Baghdad went into the evening of day 16 of the war–heavy artillery rumbled from southwestern Baghdad–the direction of the airport.
"The thud of artillery fire is reverberating across the capital–from the southwest. It just started,” a Reuters correspondent said.
Earlier in the evening–Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said that an "isolated island” of US forces was at the gates of the capital.
"We will commit a non-conventional act on them–not necessarily military,” he told a news conference.
Asked if Iraq would use weapons of mass destruction–which it denies possessing–Sahaf said: "No–not at all. But we will conduct a kind of martyrdom (suicide) operations.”
The US military on Friday said the second suicide car bombing of the war 24 hours earlier had killed three soldiers–a pregnant woman and the driver–in northwestern Iraq.
The United States and Britain attacked Iraq after accusing its president of hiding chemical and biological weapons. They have made no confirmed finding.
Saddam–in his television appearance–made no mention of any non-conventional attack–telling the city’s people: "Hit them with force–resist them–oh people of Baghdad whenever they advance upon your city and remain true to your principles–your faith and your honor.”
Southeast of Baghdad–a US Marine officer told Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire the Nida division of the Republican Guard had "ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.”
A US spokesman’said earlier that about 2,500 Republican Guards from a different division had surrendered.
"Just last night there was a (military field) report of about 2,500 soldiers of the Baghdad division surrendering–stripping off their uniforms,” Captain Frank Thorp told Reuters.
That claim prodded world financial markets out of their wait-and-see mode. European stocks jumped–safe-haven bond prices fell and oil extended losses to a dollar a barrel.
Reuters correspondent Matthew Green said a huge armored column of US Marines was closing in on Baghdad on Friday–the eastern prong of a thrust towards the city.
A reporter with the US television network ABC near the head of the column reported stiff resistance and said there had been some casualties.
Despite the swift advances of the past few days–the US military said it would take time to get a grip on Baghdad.
"We know there are forces inside that have intent to fight,” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said at Central Command. "It will take time to gain a degree of control and security.”
Terrified civilians streamed into Baghdad to escape fighting around the airport–just 20 km (12 miles) southwest of the center–Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul reported.
"It was a night of hell,” said one trembling woman. "We thought they had entered Baghdad–there were planes all night dropping bombs and there was shelling all night.”
The airport was a key objective for US forces–who can use it as a forward base in any battle for this sprawling city.
Brooks said the US military was confident that it had breached the defensive ring around Baghdad–but Iraqi Special Republican Guards were still operating in the area.
He said special forces in Iraq’s western desert had found a suspected chemical warfare training school. US forces also reported finding vials of unidentified liquid and white powder at two sites near the town of Latifiya–just south of Baghdad.
US officials said on Friday that President George W. Bush would meet his ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair next Tuesday in Northern Ireland to discuss the Iraq war and the Middle East peace process.
France–Germany and Russia–the main voices opposed to the US-led war in Iraq–said on Friday the United Nations would have to play a key role in rebuilding the country because it alone had legitimate authority.
Reuters correspondents in Baghdad said residents were tense and fearful–gripped by a sense of impending crisis. Many stayed indoors–while knots of armed militiamen guarded the streets.
The city lost power on Thursday night for the first time in the war although some supplies came back on Friday. The United States denied targeting the electricity network.
The capital is now in range of the rockets and artillery of US forces who have driven over 500 km (300 miles) from Kuwait.
But even the Bush administration said a lethal struggle could lie ahead for US forces arrayed on the edge of Baghdad.
"I still want to caution everybody. We are still in the middle of a battle–a battle that remains deadly. It’s not over,” a US official said in Washington.