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Nic Robertson: Saddam's use of 'jihad' new

CNN's Nic Robertson

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JORDAN-IRAQ BORDER (CNN) -- In a statement read Tuesday by Iraq's information minister on Iraqi television, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein rallied his countrymen and troops to fight a "holy war" against the U.S.-led coalition.

CNN correspondent Nic Robertson, who has spent many months in Iraq and is now located just over the Iraqi border in Jordan, talked with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer about the speech and strategy of Saddam's regime.

ROBERTSON: This is quite extraordinary. We haven't heard Saddam Hussein appeal in such a way, in such strong terms, to the country's Islamic roots.

[Saddam said] this is a fight against Iraqis in an Islamic nation -- that this is a jihad and that they should take up arms and fight. This is their chance to win immortality.

Clearly, the message ... from the Iraqi leader is a strong, strong message of defiance, exulting the people to take up arms and fight the coalition forces.

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But to hear him put it and set it in the terms of the jihad -- in Islamic terms rather than defending the nation -- is a very new move. We know 60 percent of the population in Iraq is Shiite Muslim. In the last Gulf War, they revolted against President Saddam Hussein [who is a Sunni Muslim] and lost.

WOLF BLITZER: The Iraqi information minister read the statement on behalf of Saddam Hussein, instead of Saddam himself appearing on videotape. What, if anything, should we draw from that?

ROBERTSON: We may draw that this is the Iraqi leadership trying to confound the coalition.

The coalition keeps asking, 'Where is Saddam Hussein? Is he in good health?' This could be an effort merely to confuse them.

It could be because Saddam is concerned about his security, and he doesn't want to give away his location -- even to people he would normally trust who perhaps would videotape the event.

And there's a possibility, as well, that this message is just deemed better delivered through the information minister.

start quote"Let's go and do jihad. Whoever dies will be rewarded by heaven."end quote
-- Saddam Hussein, in a statement read by Iraq's information minister

Certainly, Iraqi people watching it will have taken note that it wasn't President Saddam Hussein making the speech, that it was the information minister. If it had been the Iraqi leader, for the Iraqi people, it may have had ... more symbolism, more importance.

But it's very difficult, at this stage, to analyze exactly why the information minister was chosen to give this hard-line speech to the Iraqi people at this time.

BLITZER: The mere presence of Saddam would presumably have stiffened the backbone of a lot of his fighters, would have shown the Iraqi people that he's still in power and that the U.S.-led coalition has not brought him down.

Couldn't the fact that he didn't appear on television be an indication that he's struggling to survive, perhaps in hiding, perhaps having been injured in that initial airstrike?

Minister Mohammed Saeed al Sahaf read the statement, rather than the Iraqi president himself.

ROBERTSON: I think we can take it as definitely meaning something. For such an important speech, at such an important time and calling on the Iraqi people essentially to lay down their lives, it's very interesting that he wouldn't do it personally at this time.

But there could be, as I say, a number of reasons. It may be for a reason of security. It may be that he feels that it is more appropriate for the information minister to make this speech.

Saddam may feel, because he's appealing to the country's Islamic roots rather than the secular nation that he and his Baath Party have essentially been trying to build over the last three decades, that it might be misinterpreted [as insincere] by people around the country.

Definitely, it is interesting, and there will be a specific reason why Saddam didn't give the speech himself. After all, he is essentially asking Iraqis to lay down their lives in the spirit of jihad -- to become martyrs and essentially offer themselves up for the cause. So there must be a reason.

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