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After a scintillating show, Sahaf goes behind curtain

Baghdad, May 4: The moment when Saddam Hussein’s faithful minister of information, Mohammad Said al-Sahaf, finally accepted that the game was up has been revealed.

In the dying days of the regime the indefatigable minister, dubbed “Comical Ali”, had haunted a radio studio in Baghdad, urging engineers to carry on pumping out Saddam’s propaganda.

Even after the statue of Saddam was toppled on April 9, Sahaf refused to accept that Saddam’s era was over. But in the early hours of April 10, with the sound of battle raging ever closer to the studio, in the al-Adhamiyah district, even Sahaf headed for the exit.

“Sahaf slowly removed his black beret,” recalls Raibah Hassan, 35, the manager of the Hikmat studio, the last person to have seen him in public. “He folded down the epaulettes on his military jacket to hide his rank and then he reached for a red and white kaffiyeh scarf. He wrapped it around his head as he told us to keep on re-broadcasting until 3am. He said goodbye, and then disappeared out of the back door.”

Last week, the minister whose outrageous proclamations during the war earned him an international cult following — record producers are to create a dance track sampling his most popular catchphrases — was reportedly trying to strike a deal with the Americans that would allow him to go into exile in Egypt.

A former Iraqi general who is working closely with Gen. Jay Garner, the man overseeing Iraq’s post-war reconstruction, told The Daily Telegraph of Britain that he had been approached by one of Sahaf’s cousins, seeking a deal.

The general described Sahaf as “naive” and claimed that Saddam used to beat his minister of information.

Certainly, Sahaf’s loyalty as a standard-bearer for the cause was remarkable. According to Hassan, Sahaf and a team of aides arrived at the studio on April 8 and rarely left it. He says Sahaf worked from a transmitter van parked in the studio garden, sustained only by a few cups of tea and an occasional slice of cake.

On the morning of April 9, the day American soldiers seized Baghdad, he set off as usual for the Palestine Hotel, where the world’s media were based, to deliver his daily briefing but made a U-turn after spotting American troops. “He was very tense,” Hassan recalls. “He had been cut off from the regime.”

Nothing daunted, the minister carried on working. “He pushed it to the very end,” Hassan says. “I saw American tanks on Haifa Street across the river and I asked him about it. He said, ‘No, no, no, maybe there are two or three tanks, but they will go’.”

As the streets around the studio, which is near one of Saddam’s biggest palaces, were being looted, desperate Baath Party officials fled. Only Sahaf remained, making sure the propaganda was pumped out over the airwaves. In the evening of April 9, a courier arrived with a videotape of what was supposedly Saddam’s last recorded speech and a handwritten note ordering it to be broadcast continuously.

The minister’s spirits visibly lifted, says Hassan. “He said to me, ‘As I told you, this is Saddam, this is the government, everything is normal’. But there was gunfire in the background.”

When Sahaf finally accepted that all was lost, he left even his bodyguards behind. Barely three hours later, American troops swarmed down the street.

“I think he ran the battle alone,” Hassan said. “For two days he stayed with me with no food, nothing. He did his duty to the very end. He was brave.”

Last week there were rumours that Sahaf had been hiding out in Baghdad, staying in an aunt’s house. “Sahaf’s cousin told me he wants to give himself up, but with certain conditions,” the former Iraqi general says. “They know I had a connection with Jay Garner and I sent him to see Garner. But I warned him not to set conditions with the Americans.”

“He wants to be outside Iraq,” said the general, who did not wish to be identified. “He wants to get to Egypt. He has a lot of money stashed there in a bank and loves those Egyptian women very, very much.”

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