BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein's reference to a downed U.S. helicopter in a speech aired Friday is being interpreted by intelligence officials as a sign he is probably alive.
The officials stopped short of saying the speech provided conclusive proof that the Iraqi president had survived the U.S. attempt to kill him with the war's opening shots, suggesting there still could be a hoax.
Images shown Friday of a small crowd joyfully mobbing a man who seemed to be Saddam on the streets of Baghdad also were regarded as probably a recent recording, possibly made since the start of the war.
Saddam's status has been uncertain since the early hours of March 20, when American bombs and missiles rained down on a residential compound where the CIA believed he was spending the night.
During the speech shown Friday, the grim-faced Saddam appeared in a military uniform and beret, with an Iraqi flag over his right shoulder. He paused occasionally to turn the pages of a notebook as he spoke.
He repeated a claim made by other Iraqi officials: that a villager shot down a U.S. attack helicopter with an ancient rifle. The Iraqis first made that claim following the March 23 downing of an AH-64D Apache Longbow in battle south of Baghdad.
"Perhaps you remember the valiant Iraqi peasant and how he shot down an American Apache with an old weapon," Saddam said.
Iraq claimed two helicopters that day, but U.S. military officials said only one was lost. Whether the gunship went down to hostile fire or a mechanical failure is unclear.
The two crew members were taken prisoner, and their pictures later were shown on Iraqi television.
Saddam did not make further reference to the event in his speech. If it was recorded before the war, the preparations were elaborate: Saddam would have had to prepare a speech marking the U.S. loss of an Apache in battle.
Intelligence officials have little doubt that both the speech and the street scenes aired Friday were authentic recordings of Saddam, even if the date of the recordings was not certain. Analysts believe they could quickly spot a fake Saddam in any close-up shots; body doubles, intelligence officials say, are more useful as decoys in motorcades and similar situations.
Much of the rest of Saddam's speech was an attempt to inspire the Iraqi people to fight the U.S.-led invasion.
Saddam began by saying coalition forces had failed to shake the steadfastness of the Iraqi people. He called on Baghdad's citizens to resist and to stick to "your principles, your patriotism and the honor of men and women."
The whereabouts of Saddam and his sons, also key members of the Iraqi government, are unknown to U.S. intelligence.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Friday that the tape does not confirm Saddam's status one way or the other.
"In the bigger scheme of things, It really doesn't matter because whether it is him or isn't him, the regime's days are numbered and are coming to an end," he said.
Besides the speech, Arab television networks aired footage of Saddam walking among a small but excited crowd cheering, "With our blood and souls we redeem you Saddam."
Al-Jazeera said the tape was made Friday. It was taken in daylight, but not broadcast until after nightfall. U.S. intelligence officials say it is impossible to tell when it was made, but acknowledged it could have been since the war started.
That Saddam could walk on the streets of Baghdad suggests U.S. surveillance of the city of 5 million is less than total, even as American troops build up on the city's edge.
Intelligence officials said Saddam would only walk so openly in a staged event, with approved, diehard loyalists as the adoring crowd.
In Friday's speech, Saddam also described the U.S. war strategy of bypassing most Iraqi towns and military units to bore in on Baghdad. Fleischer said one part of the speech -- suggesting that U.S. troops bypassed, instead of fought, Baghdad's defenses -- differed from reality.
Previously, Iraqi television had broadcast a number of speeches and messages from Saddam since March 20.
But none of those messages contained the kind of specific references that would confirm they were recorded after the war began. Intelligence officials said they had some information that Saddam prerecorded a number of speeches to air during the war.