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Elusive voice haunts Iraq

As fighting escalated further in Iraq on Friday, an audiotape surfaced with a voice claiming to be that of Saddam Hussein, breaking a long silence since an allied military campaign drove him from office in April.

On a day when American forces killed 11 Iraqis in a firefight north of Baghdad _ and a day after 28 U.S. soldiers were wounded, including 18 in a mortar attack on a military base _ the speaker urged Iraqis to continue resisting the American and British "infidel invaders" while protecting Iraqis engaged in attacks on allied forces.

Portions of the tape were broadcast on the Arab satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, a day after the Bush administration offered a $25-million reward for information leading to Hussein's capture or evidence proving he is dead. Rewards of $15-million each were offered for the same information about his sons, Uday and Qusay.

On the tape, the voice exhorts Iraqis to protect "heroic resistance fighters" who have staged a series of attacks on American and British forces, leaving at least 25 Americans dead in action since May 1. The voice, which said the tape was made on June 14, warned that "the next few days, God willing, will be arduous for the infidel invaders and honorable for the faithful."

There was no way of knowing whether the tape is authentic. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, traveling with President Bush for an Independence Day speech in Ohio, said the tape will be reviewed by intelligence agencies.

The appearance of the audiotape, if authenticated as carrying Hussein's voice, would be a blow to the allied military effort, which has sought to portray Iraqi resistance as leaderless at the national level, scattered and ineffective. In the recording, the voice makes reference to operations that must be safeguarded and to "jihad cells" and "brigades" that have been formed. It urges Iraqis to avoid cooperation with occupation authorities and suggests plans have been laid for future operations in coming days.

"Make the mujahedeen secure and catch any spies," the voice said. "We call on Iraqis that deal with Americans to stop doing so." And, the voice makes reference to the debate over the justification for the war.

"I ask the invaders, where are these weapons of mass destruction?"

The broadcast of the tape came as hostilities continued between coalition forces and members of the Iraqi resistance. Early Friday, American military officials said, soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division's 7th Cavalry killed 11 Iraqis as the Iraqis tried to ambush them on Highway 1 near Balad.

"The attackers attempted to engage the patrol with small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades, but were all killed when the patrol returned fire," a military statement said. No American injuries were reported.

A soldier of the 1st Armored Division was shot and killed Thursday night while standing at his post outside the Iraq Museum on a day in which the museum had reopened its doors for an exhibition of gold and jewelry from Nimrud, the capital of the Assyrian Empire in 900 B.C.

The soldier was in the gunner's hatch of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle when he was hit, a military statement said.

U.S. military officials have said there is no evidence of central "command and control" for the attacks that have plagued allied forces, though they acknowledged this week there might be "regional" coordination. But authentication of the tape would indicate Hussein is seeking to project himself, perhaps from the isolation of his hiding place, as the leader of a resistance movement, however disorganized.

"People have been asking why they haven't heard the voice of Saddam Hussein," the voice said. "We face a lot of trouble in getting our voice to you even though we have been trying."

The voice asserted that, "I am with some of my companions in Iraq," and called upon Iraqis to "protect these heroic fighters and not give the invaders any information about them or their whereabouts during their operations."

"I tell you that I miss you, miss you, oh beloved people, even though I am among you and in your ranks," the tape said.

A number of Iraqis who heard the recording Friday appeared convinced of the tape's authenticity. They said it was partly the timbre of the voice, but more the histrionics of the message, the classical Arabic idioms and his familiar refrain of Allah-u Akbar, "God is great," that comprised for them the vocal signature of the fallen Iraqi leader.

Yet many Iraqis appeared unimpressed Hussein had perhaps managed to broadcast his voice to his people for the first time since he fled after a final appearance, still contested by some experts, at a public square in the Adamiya neighborhood of Baghdad.

"The tape of course is authentic," said Hathem Ali al-Ansaari, a money changer in the Karada district of Baghdad. "He spoke about resistance, we know that he is there. All these attacks, they are well-prepared and synchronized."

"It's over, it's over, the people won't accept him coming back," said Salem Kudish, 50, a grocery shop owner.

A spokesman for the Al-Jazeera television channel said the 20-minute tape had been offered to the station by a caller Friday afternoon. It was transmitted by telephone and then edited for broadcast, the spokesman said.

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