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Mohammed Said Sahaf wages war on reality

by David Lamb Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 2:36 AM

Hussein's glib spokesman has won the admiration of Arabs by insulting the U.S. and reporting fantastic victories for Iraq.

CAIRO -- As the new media star of the Iraq war, Mohammed Said Sahaf gave the performance of his life Monday, predicting victory with a confident smile, insulting the Americans in flowery Arabic and declaring Baghdad "safe and secure."

With the smoke of battle hanging over Baghdad, Sahaf, Iraq's minister of information, stood on the roof of the Palestine Hotel, his finger jabbing at an imaginary target, and told foreign reporters that the invading "louts" and "mercenaries" were being "slaughtered." Apparently pleased with his choice of words, he paused and grinned, then went on: "Like Saddam Hussein said, God will grill their bellies in hell!"

Never mind that in the streets below, bursts of machine-gun fire from U.S. tanks echoed through the city, and in the nearby presidential palace, American soldiers were taking showers in Hussein's bathroom. Sahaf was firm: "We have killed most of the infidels, and I think we will finish off the rest soon."

If truth is the first casualty of war, Sahaf has piled up an awesome body count as the face and voice of the Hussein regime. For 19 days, he has stood at the briefing podium, a pistol on his hip, his beret at a cocky angle, his military uniform bearing two small medallions — a portrait of Hussein and an Iraqi flag — and explained to journalists that TV pictures of U.S. troops taking over the airport and patrolling Baghdad were fakes or illusions. The war, he maintained, was proceeding precisely as Iraq had planned it.

"Washington and London," he said, "have thrown their soldiers into the fire."

Westerners shake their heads in disbelief at his upbeat comments, wondering whether they have heard him correctly. "If this weren't a war, you'd think it was a 'Saturday Night Live' skit," said Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of Defense. Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of the British forces in Iraq, added: "The only thing I want to know is where he got his marketing degree."

Even Sahaf's own underlings in the Information Ministry can't suppress the occasional snicker when he unrolls one of his snippets of alternative reality.

But Sahaf, 63, who has a master's degree in English literature from Baghdad University and is a former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, isn't stupid and doesn't seem to mind playing the buffoon. His audience isn't the Americans or the British. In the Arab world, his virulent insults, biting humor and stinging cuss words have made Mohammed Said Sahaf as much a household name as was Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf to Americans in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"For those who are against the war, Sahaf offers some kind of Nirvanic pleasure," said Hassan Yassin, a Saudi businessman. "He is a tranquilizer for the Arab masses. He's colorful. He's brought some dormant Arabic words into his descriptions. He is a verbal slugger."

He is also a seasoned political operative who is considered close to Hussein and has been savvy enough to survive for decades in one of the world's most cutthroat capitals. Like Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, he is one of the few to do so without being a Sunni Muslim or a relative of Hussein.

Sahaf was studying to be an English teacher when he began his political career by joining Hussein's violent wing of the Baath Party in 1963. During a 1968 coup, he was given responsibility for securing the radio and television stations, and later was put in charge of both.

During that period, and later as an ambassador and foreign minister, Sahaf was known for his abrasive style and hot temper. He stormed out of an Arab League meeting in 1998 after trading insults with fellow members he considered U.S. lackeys. In 2001, he was said to have called U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "stupid" to his face. He once told Hussein's son Uday he was "unfit to govern" — an all-but-certain death warrant for any but the president's most favored comrades.

Today, Arab housewives turn on TV news just to hear his briefings. Men gather in coffee shops to puff on water pipes and chuckle at the scorn he heaps on the Americans and British with self-assured defiance. TV announcers pore over dictionaries to look up the meanings of seldom-used Arabic words he uses for insults, such as uluj — a worm that attaches to the body and sucks blood.

"I wait for his press conference every day," said Sherifa, a mother of two in Cairo who gave only her first name. "He is the only entertainment we get in this god-awful war."

"His insults are a bit vulgar, but I like his style," said Mohammed Ali, a Cairo construction worker. "I notice the Americans don't use insults in their briefings. But they do a lot of killing, and I prefer a man who relies on insults."

Sahaf, bespectacled, stocky and clean-shaven — unlike many Iraqi officials who wear Hussein-look-alike mustaches — shows every indication of reveling in his newfound stardom. With his booming voice and melodramatic gestures, he switches between Arabic and fluent English, speaking with rhetorical exaggeration that plays well with Arab audiences. Sometimes he pauses to await his listeners' response to a well-chosen insult.

His translator plays along, occasionally adding his own lines, as he did Monday, slipping in "Go to hell! I say, Go to hell!" after Sahaf declared that invading troops should go home to avoid slaughter. The translator simply skips insults that rest in Arab lore and would not be understood by Westerners.

In forging a new language of diplomacy, some of Sahaf's descriptions of Americans and British include "bloodsucking bastards," "sick dogs" and "donkeys." U.S. forces are "sick in their minds" and "losers and fools." President Bush is a "war criminal" and "stupid." British Prime Minister Tony Blair is "a part of the body near the posterior" and "not worth a shoe." U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is a "criminal dog."

Asked by journalists over the weekend whether coalition forces had entered Baghdad, as Western network cameras were showing, he said with a pleasant smile, "If they have, we will greet them with flowers." He dismissed TV video pictures of thousands of U.S. troops at the airport with an offhand, "That isn't happening."

Not that he is entirely unflappable. He has a habit of cutting off news briefings when the questions get too close to trapping him in a falsehood. After he claimed, one day recently, that U.S. troops at the Baghdad airport had parachuted in for show, he became visibly annoyed when a reporter asked whether their tanks had parachuted in too.

His loyal fans are willing to overlook such contradictions.

Abdel Sayed, a civil servant, dropped into a Cairo coffee shop Monday to catch the noon news on Al Jazeera TV. He watched U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks briefing journalists in Qatar on the coalition's advance into Baghdad but brushed him aside in a moment with a wave of the hand. When Sahaf came on a few minutes later, Sayed set his water pipe aside and bent forward to hear every word.

"This man has credibility," he said. "I like the mockery he uses, but what is important to the man in the street is his credibility. You can trust him. Just two days ago, he said Iraq had a surprise for the Americans at the airport. And look what happened. The Iraqis attacked that night and took back the airport."

The fact that there was no such Iraqi attack and that most of what Sahaf says bears little relationship to reality is lost on Sayed and millions of Arabs. Without access to non-Arabic television, they have no context other than the official line to judge what is true and what isn't — just as Egyptians didn't in 1967 when President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that Arab planes were bombing the Tel Aviv airport. Only later, after the war ended in six days, did they learn that Israel had crushed the Arab armies and Nasser had lied about the bombing.

"From the communications point of view," said a Saudi official, "Sahaf is doing a good job because he's working in the emotional area, telling people what they want to hear. He's playing to the poetic spirit of the Arab mind.

"The average street person in Egypt, Jordan, wherever, has no experience with communications and doesn't understand he's being lied to."

And so, supporters of Iraq can rest easy. As Sahaf has assured them, "The situation is stable." And Saddam Hussein? "He will stay in place like a solid rock."

Times staff writers John Daniszewski in Baghdad; Kim Murphy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Jailan Zayan in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.

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LATEST COMMENTS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
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TITLE AUTHOR DATE
This guy Sahaf Bush Admirer Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 2:38 AM
Talk Show radio Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 3:37 AM
Can we say Bean Bag Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 3:43 AM
reminds me of Sheepdog HaHa Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 3:49 AM
GOT OIL terrist Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 4:47 AM
No Troops?! Buzz Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 5:19 AM
Great post Radio! Bush Admirer Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 6:04 AM
To: Bush Admirer Fuck Bush Admirer Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 6:25 AM
whaaa fucking whaaa. Eric Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 6:31 AM
Go Away Eric ERIC SUCKS Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 6:34 AM
Time saver. Eric Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 6:47 AM
????? AIR-ICK, DUH Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 6:51 AM
whaa whaaa you know who Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 6:52 AM
FUCK YOU FUCK YTOU ERIC Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 7:36 AM
Eric, You are Truly an Ass Another Fuck You to Eric Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 7:47 AM
Every thread... daveman Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 8:32 AM
Sheesh For daveman Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 9:39 AM
So this is... daveman Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 10:03 AM
Now, I'm done ranting Now, I'm done ranting Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 10:10 AM
God bless free Iraq! terrist Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2003 at 11:56 AM

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