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Iraq displays seemingly healthy Saddam Hussein
U.S. presidents come and go, but Iraqi leader remains
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Few things define Iraq more than its army. At Baghdad's monument to the unknown soldier, of which there are tens of thousands, Iraq's military leaders gathered on Saturday to illustrate another key Iraqi trait: endurance.
President Saddam Hussein's second-in-command, Izzat Ibrahim, who has been treated in the West for cancer, looked frail and thin. But dressed in a gray sweater-vest over his uniform on the chilly winter morning that was the 80th anniversary of the founding of Iraq's army, he walked with military bearing to lay the wreath to the war dead.
The Iraqi president has not appeared himself at these ceremonies in years. In a taped televised speech to the nation, though, he appeared fit and healthy, counterpoint to persistent rumors that Hussein had collapsed and been hospitalized on New Year's Eve.
He was last seen in public by diplomats and journalists on Sunday, when he oversaw a five-hour military parade of soldiers, tanks, fighter jets and missiles -- the biggest show of force since the Gulf War. Smoking his cigar, standing in the cold for hours and repeatedly firing a rifle with one hand, the 63-year-old leader seemed the picture of health.
On Thursday, he was shown on Iraqi television speaking for almost an hour to a visiting theater group, including Syrian film star Raghda, who had arrived just two days before -- seeming evidence that the president was not seriously ill.
"These are just rumors, ridiculous rumors," said Iraq's Information Minister Hummam Abdul Khalik Abdul Ghafour, at another army celebration.
With the inauguration of George W. Bush on January, the Iraqi president will have survived three U.S. administrations -- a far cry from official U.S. predictions that he wouldn't last six months after his Gulf War defeat in 1991 -- when Bush's father was president of the United States.
Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad, who as a general signed the cease-fire declaration with the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters on the steps of the war memorial on Saturday he wasn't expecting any less hostility from the United States.
"What has changed? They are the same ones who fought us and those who are now in power were present during the aggression. For us it is not different," said Ahmad.
Iraq has worn down parts of the trade embargo imposed 10 years ago at the end of the war. But the sanctions have tied Iraq's hands in the oil markets, and late last year Baghdad offered to resume talks with the United Nations to end the impasse over sanctions.
Those talks are due to begin in New York by next month. But another figure familiar to the Iraqis -- Secretary of State-designee Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War -- has said he will work to breathe new life into the sanctions.
Diplomats say Iraq wants to find a way to have sanctions lifted if it agrees to cooperate with weapons monitoring, another key component of the cease-fire agreement.
U.N. weapons inspectors have been barred from Iraq since they pulled out two years ago, just hours before the U.S. and Britain bombed Baghdad. Iraq has since refused to cooperate with a U.N. resolution that would ease but not lift sanctions if the new inspection team returns.
Oil surcharge backfires
Meanwhile, Iraq has effectively kept its oil off world markets for the last month by making what many analysts see as a badly timed power play.
Under the U.N.-supervised oil-for-food program, all Iraq's revenue goes into a U.N.-controlled account. But Baghdad imposed a surcharge, to be paid into an Iraqi-controlled account -- and major buyers balked.
While the move briefly sent oil prices rising, they've since come down in the face of lower demand and greater supply from other producers.
Iraq's oil minister Gen. Amer Rasheed told reporters on Saturday that Iraq expected to resume exports soon but did not say whether Baghdad is dropping the demand for a surcharge. Traders said that demand was recently lowered to 10 cents per barrel of oil from 50 cents.
"We had a little problem of the pricing mechanism during the last month," the minister said. "We hope to solve the problem this month. We will return to our normal exports hopefully shortly."
Iraq has been in no danger of running out of cash during the oil stoppage. It has a backlog of about $4 billion under the U.N. program that it can use for humanitarian supplies. And a major part of the Iraqi regime's operating funds come from oil and fuel smuggled through other countries outside the U.N. program.
U.N. Council extends Iraq oil, food plan for 6 months
The Iraqi Presidency
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