Former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz has told US interrogators he saw Saddam Hussein alive after he survived two coalition air strikes intended to kill him, USA Today reported on Monday, citing a senior Pentagon official.
Is Saddam alive? Captured Iraqi Vice
President Tariq Aziz says he has seen him
Aziz, the most high profile member of Iraq's ousted regime to fall into US hands so far, surrendered to occupation forces overnight Thursday.
General Tommy Franks, the commander of US forces in Iraq, said in Abu Dhabi on Sunday that he had seen no evidence recently to convince him that the deposed Iraqi president was still alive.
He said Aziz was being "cooperative and talkative" under interrogation, although he added: "What we don't know is the veracity of it."
On March 20 and April 7, US forces used cruise missiles and bunker-busting bombs against two locations in Baghdad where intelligence indicated Saddam was meeting with his top associates.
Whereas other years were marked by over the top birthday celebrations, the event this year was an occasion for renewed speculation on his whereabouts.
In 2002, the occasion was marked with a giant pink birthday cake in Tikrit, the renaming of Iraq's 'Youth Television' station – run by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday – to 'Birthday Television' for the occasion and the awarding of a golden statue of the 12th century Muslim hero Saladdin to the Iraqi president.
Former Iraqi President never attended his
own birthday celebrations
In the same year, a play based on a novel written by Saddam Hussein, Zabiba and the King, opened in Baghdad to rapturous reviews while 500 Iraqi couples were married at a mass wedding in Saddam Hussein's honour.
The Ba'ath party had staged such grand celebrations annually since 1985, despite extreme poverty amid ten years of UN sanctions, magnified by severe drought since last year.
This year's 66th birthday celebrations had nothing in common with past celebrations save Saddam’s non-attendance.
In Baghdad’s fiercely anti-Saddam Sadr City neighbourhood, exultant crowds spoofed former birthday celebrations by pasting photos of the former Iraqi leader on a donkey and heaping scorn on his 24-year reign.
"For the first time in my life, I won't be forced to attend Saddam's birthday ceremonies. He was a dictator, he was nothing but a donkey ruling over Iraq," said Ali, 24.
A political force on the ascendancy: Shia
pray in Baghdad
The young man, speaking in the Sadr city neighborhood formerly known as Saddam city and home to about two million Shiite Muslims, said most Iraqis had been "faking joy on Saddam's birthday each year because we were plain afraid."
Crowds of young boys were clapping their hands in appreciation as a man planted a banner and a colourful plastic tree by the donkey.
"April 28, it's your birthday you loser!" read the sign.
Pictures of Saddam and his two equally feared sons, Uday and Qussay, were also on display.
"We won't kill the animal although he represents Saddam the criminal, because donkeys are as oppressed as we were for years," said al-Hussein.
But not everybody was in the mood to mock the toppled dictator.
"More important things are on my mind frankly," said Hassan Khusai, 35.
"We want our rights as Shiites to be secured, we want an indigenous government to rule over Iraq," he said, slamming US-backed opposition leaders such as Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi.
Others were still clearly afraid to speak their minds.
"Maybe it's good he was toppled ... but we had enough to eat under Saddam, now it's a mess," mumbled Samia Aziz, 40, checking over her shoulder as she spoke with a fearful look in her eyes.
"A lot of people still believe Saddam eve Saddam is dead or left the country, but you have to understand that a culture of fear was cultivated for decades by the old regime," he said.
Manufactured displays of affection: Iraqis
lived in fear of their president
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s Youssif Al Shouli reported from Baghdad that “US forces intensified patrols in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit today.”
“Armoured vehicles and jeeps backed by Apache helicopters are patrolling the city.”
Rumours have abounded in Iraq that Saddam was planning a surprising move for his sixty-sixth birthday.
But Tikrit’s inhabitants point out that it is very difficult for the former Iraqi president to return to the city. All the same, Al Shouli reports their warnings that “Saddam's legacy will continue to cause the Americans a headache until he is either arrested or his dead body is found.”
The deposed Iraqi president has retained some supporters as leaflets spread throughout Baghdad attest. They call for the return of Saddam Hussein and stress that he is "the preserver of the dignity of Iraqis".