We shall slaughter them all. God will barbecue their bellies in hell. We trap and beat them everywhere. I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad.’ The last declaration was made while a US army Abrams tank could be clearly seen blazing away across the Tigris. Welcome to the world of Mohammed Said al-Sahaf, who until Tuesday was Iraq’s minister of information.
During the war, Sahaf was by far the most high-profile member of Saddam Hussein’s regime: television viewers from Tokyo to San Francisco became accustomed to him boasting how the Iraqi forces had inflicted stunning defeats on the ‘mercenary lackeys of the Zionist entity’. During his press conferences, up to four of them a day, he exhorted the international media not to listen to the ‘shameless, shameless propaganda’ coming from Washington and London, while describing a surreal, parallel war.
A man of boundless energy, Sahaf would also regularly turn up at briefings given by colleagues such as Tariq Aziz and Tahir Yasin Ramadhan. He is a tiny man – not much over 5ft tall – and has a lugubrious face faintly resembling Walter Matthau. Sahaf appeared to be everywhere. He would often be accompanied by Uday al-Ta’aie, the director-general of the information ministry, the first port of bribes for journalists wishing to extend their Iraqi visa, and the collector of the $225 a day one paid for the privilege of being in Baghdad.
Just how important a player Sahaf was in the regime, and to what extent culpable in its appalling human-rights abuse, depends on whom one talks to. He was born in 1940, and worked as an English teacher in Baghdad before joining the Baath party in his twenties. It is said that he came to the notice of the local leadership as someone worthy of nurturing when he denounced his brother for disloyalty.
Sahaf made full use of the patronage system within the Baath to secure a steady rise. Saddam appeared to regard him as a safe pair of hands, and he served as foreign minister before being appointed to the information ministry. But the regime’s job descriptions were flexible: Sahaf was sent to New Delhi a few months ago in a failed attempt to persuade the Indian government to contribute to Hans Blix’s team of United Nations inspectors. Little is known about his private life. There is a rumour, repeated with relish by the ‘minders’ from the information ministry, that he is gay. That, however, may have something to do with the fact that he is one of the very few men without a moustache one sees in Baghdad.
Sahaf is accused of acquiescing in the excesses of Saddam, rather than encouraging them. Surprisingly, while foreign minister he criticised Uday Hussein when, in a fit of pique, he shot up a party, injuring his uncle Watban and some gypsy dancers. The President’s son, said Sahaf, was ‘unfit to govern’, a brave statement to make knowing the nature of the regime – and of Uday. According to Iraqi officials, Sahaf was due to change ministries just before the current crisis began and he was asked by Saddam to continue in his post and lead the Iraqi media campaign. It was a job he undertook with obvious relish; he had a line in rapid rebuttal that Alastair Campbell could only dream of.
With initial British and American claims of military success proving exaggerated, Sahaf had a willing audience among British and American journalists. Indeed, the first Iraqi pronouncements on matters such as casualty figures were cautious and apparently credible. But as the tide of war turned against Baghdad, the journalists – whipped into the press conferences by Uday al-Ta’aie and the information ministry ‘minders’ – were treated to Sahaf turning Iraqi disasters into triumphs, using rich, and totally bogus, detail. All this was accompanied by more and more invective. George W. Bush and Tony Blair were ‘criminal dogs’, the White House ‘a brothel and a cissipit [sic]’.
It was, by now, a one-man show. Other regime members had disappeared from the press circuit. When the US forces captured Saddam International Airport, Sahaf called an impromptu briefing to deny it. At a second briefing, he acknowledged the airport was under attack but declared, ‘It is difficult for the US forces that are surrounded in Saddam Airport to come out alive – I mean some kind of martyrdom, and there are very, very new ways which we are going to carry it out.’
A little while later came a third briefing, and the disclosure that the brave Iraqi forces had retaken the airport: ‘We have defeated them. In fact, we have crushed them. We have pushed them outside the whole area of the airport, slaughtering, I mean slaughtering, the mercenaries. We shall take you there in a few hours….’ In the course of that evening there were repeated reassurances by the minders that we would be taken to the airport. Some journalists actually waited outside the Palestine Hotel for the coaches to turn up.
As the Americans began to encroach more and more into the capital, Sahaf turned up to reassure, ‘There are none of their troops in Baghdad. They pushed forward some troop transporters and tanks. We have surrounded them with our troops. I ask you to verify everything the Americans and British say and not just to repeat the lies of these liars.’
There was more good news later. ‘They are beginning to commit suicide at the walls of Baghdad and I encourage them to increase the rate of suicide. Their columns are being killed in the hundreds at the walls of Baghdad. We have fed them hell and death,’ said Sahaf. The last time we saw Sahaf was on Tuesday when he turned up at the Palestine Hotel just after midday. Just a few minutes earlier the building had been shelled and colleagues injured, two of them to die later. We were not in a mood to take part in the usual farce, and the minister sensed it. After a very brief ‘We have driven off the Americans from Baghdad, they are running’ etc., he left hurriedly, jumping into the passenger seat of a Toyota pick-up truck.
On Wednesday the regime had collapsed. Protest marches in Saddam City, the vast, violent Shia suburb of the capital, rapidly turned to looting and the pulling-down of Saddam’s statues. Sahaf did not turn up to explain that this was nothing but a spontaneous outpouring of anti-American anger by the people. He was, no doubt, already on the run to Syria, Belarus or wherever remnants of the regime are seeking boltholes. If we see him again, it will probably be in US custody, or perhaps swinging from a lamppost.
Kim Sengupta is a journalist with the Independent.