Magazine article The Spectator

The Hero of Baghdad

Magazine article The Spectator

The Hero of Baghdad

Article excerpt


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 A 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 Sft tall - and has a lugubrious face faintly resembling Walter Matthau. Sahaf appeared to be everywhere. He would often be accompanied by Uday alTa'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. …

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