BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi television said Saddam Hussein would address the nation Tuesday night, but the speech was delivered instead by his information minister -- an unexplained absence that comes at a time of increased speculation in Washington and London about Saddam's health and leadership.
Instead, Iraqi viewers saw Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf read a speech in Saddam's name to rally them to a holy war against U.S.-led forces.
It is not unusual for Iraqi media to say that Saddam would speak only to have others appear instead. He did not deliver an announced speech last year explaining his side of the Kuwait invasion, and he usually saves his televised appearances for major events.
The United States began bombarding Iraq on March 20. Saddam was shown on television after that, but has made no live appearances.
Even in normal times, however, live speeches and appearances by Saddam were a rarity.
Saddam's most recent appearance on Iraqi television was broadcast Monday night -- footage showing him with his sons Odai and Qusai at a meeting of top military commanders. But, like other broadcasts, there was no way of independently determining when the footage was shot.
The White House, along with British officials, raised new doubts about Saddam's status.
Ari Fleischer, spokesman for President Bush, said Tuesday the administration has nothing "hard, concrete to report," but questioned why the regime has not offered proof Saddam still lives.
"We don't know if he is alive or if he is dead," he said. "The ways that you would know is if you would see him in a live broadcast. If he was live or he showed something contemporaneous, he would speak about an event that just took place that day or the night before, then you might have information that he is alive. ... We have not seen that. ... The proof that he would be dead would be if you saw a body."
Fleischer added the fact that "he failed to show up for his scheduled appearance today raises additional questions."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also asked: "Where are Iraq's leaders?"
"The night before the ground war began, coalition forces launched a strike on a meeting of Iraq's senior command and control, and they have not been heard from since," Rumsfeld said at his briefing Tuesday.
"The fact that Saddam Hussein did not show up for his televised speech today is interesting," he added.
The British Foreign Office also found it "interesting" that al-Sahhaf gave the speech instead of Saddam.
"We can't reach any definitive conclusions, but Saddam's nonappearance does raise questions about the legitimacy of his other broadcasts," a Downing Street spokesman said. "It does seem very strange that he hasn't appeared at this time."
Peter Hain, a minister in Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet, said Saddam's failure to deliver his message in person raised questions over whether he was wounded or had fled Baghdad.
"Does he exist?" asked Hain. "Is he injured? Where is he? I think it is very odd. There's a really interesting question here as to where exactly is he and what state he is in."
Iraqi leaders insist Saddam is alive and directing his country's war effort.
Saddam's speech also was filled with unusually religious rhetoric for the leader of a secular socialist state, invoking God 18 times, referring to jihad or holy war, and urging the Iraqi people to not give up the fight until U.S.-led forces "withdraw from the lands of the Muslims."
Such language is a clear sign that in its fight for survival, the regime is trying to rally Iraqis through Islam.