BAGHDAD, Iraq - With U.S. troops moving cautiously toward placing the city under siege, Iraqi television last night showed a 12-minute film of a relaxed and cheerful man who it said was Saddam Hussein strolling with apparent nonchalance around Baghdad and stopping to exchange greetings with ordinary Iraqis.
The footage, shown several times during the evening, appeared to be Iraq's riposte to conjecture among officials in Washington that the 65-year-old ruler might have been killed or incapacitated in the American missile strikes that opened the war, more than two weeks ago.
The Pentagon said at the time that the war's opening salvos March 20 were aimed at a meeting of top Iraqi leaders in a military compound in southern Baghdad, which intelligence had indicated might have included Hussein.
Yesterday, at what appeared to be a critical juncture of the war, with U.S. troops occupying the airport west of the city, Iraq produced what amounted to a coup de theatre, one that put Hussein back on the public stage in a way that sought to puncture the notion that he and his associates were on the ropes.
The message conveyed, people here said, was as powerful as any the Iraqi leader has contrived in a long time - at least for those Iraqis who saw it, a dwindling number in Baghdad, where the power went out across the city just as a new wave of heavy American air attacks began Thursday night.
A few hours before the images were shown, Iraqi state television also showed images of Hussein making a new speech from what appeared to be the same low-ceilinged bunker he used before, sitting at the same lectern and beside the same Iraqi flag as he did March 24. This time, he urged Iraqis to fight against the growing encirclement of Baghdad.
"Strike them with the power of faith wherever they approach you, and resist them, O courageous citizens of Baghdad," Hussein said.
Few films, if any, seem certain to receive closer scrutiny than the one showing Hussein in the streets of Baghdad. But the provisional information given last night by Iraqis friendly enough to Western reporters to speak candidly about Hussein - and to whisper that they yearn for an Iraq without him - offered little comfort to American war planners.
The man in the film, they said, was almost certainly Hussein, down to his loping walk, his thick, almost lisping Arabic with the accent of his native district of Tikrit, the thick graying moustache, the slight paunch visible as the man in the film turned sideways to the camera as he accepted the cheers of the crowd, the chopping of the air with his right hand, palm clenched, thumb upward, just as Hussein is shown in a battalion of statues around Baghdad.
As for the dating of the film, it seemed unarguable that it was shot after the start of the war.
The black smoke that has plumed skyward over Baghdad since March 22 was clearly visible on the horizon.
At least one place where Hussein stopped was easy to identify: across the street from an auction house in the al-Mansour district. This placed the Iraqi leader - if it was him - at least halfway to the airport from the largest of his vast compounds in Baghdad, the now almost obliterated Republican Palace grounds. The weather, too, was a clue - overcast, just as it was in Baghdad yesterday.