| A video grab of Sahaf speaking on Monday in Baghdad. (AFP)
Amman, April 7 (Reuters): A black military beret on his head, his mouth fixed in a blithe smile, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf has become the face and voice of Iraqi defiance.
Iraq’s information minister seems completely undaunted by US and British successes, and often as not flatly denies what viewers around the world can see unfolding on their TV screens. Even as the US troops roamed through a presidential complex in the heart of Baghdad today and as tanks rumbled down streets a few hundred metres away, Sahaf was confidently boasting to the world the invaders would be slaughtered.
“The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad,” he told reporters gathered on the roof of the information ministry. “As our leader Saddam Hussein said, ‘God is grilling their stomachs in hell’.”
Undeterred by the black smoke billowing behind him over central Baghdad, and the sound of fighting echoing around the capital, he declared the city was safe and protected.
Wearing his trademark green military uniform, with a pistol at the hip, he hurled abuse and insults. The American forces, he said, were “sick in their minds”.
Sahaf, 63, who kept a low profile before the war, has become an unlikely media star and a hero to many in the Arab world, at the same time as Western audiences gasp at his bravado.
While Iraqi troops fight in the field, the former foreign minister has dug deep into the lexicon of Arabic insults for verbal salvoes to lob at the “evil invaders”.
He branded the British and the US leaders “an international gang of criminal bastards”, “blood-sucking bastards”, ignorant imperialists, losers and fools.
He calls the US and British forces flocks of sheep doomed to die in Iraq or likens them to a snake slithering through the desert that will be chopped into pieces.
Sahaf often leaves foreign reporters astonished at his version of events, but roundly dismisses US and British reports of the war as lies and “illusions”.
Sahaf firmly denied the US forces were at Baghdad’s international airport despite television footage apparently showing them strolling through the damaged passenger terminal.
When asked the next day about US reports that troops were in the heart of the capital, Sahaf retorted: “You can go and visit those places. Nothing there, nothing there at all.”
In the Arab world, where he is seen as a hero by some, Sahaf escapes the mockery his utterances evoke in Western newspapers.
“I believe Sahaf exaggerates a little, but he needs to do that to reassure his people,” said Hazem, a 25-year-old security guard in Cairo. “Of course he knows that he is talking to the American soldiers as well, so his words are part of the psychological war that’s going on.”
Abdul-Aziz, a Saudi writer who would not give his last name, said: “Sahaf is vulgar but he is a brave liar...If the rest of the Iraqi government or army were this brave, they would inflict many more losses on US and British forces.”
The view is different in the US and Britain.
“With regard to the information coming out of Baghdad, spin is all very well and to be expected but it has to keep links with reality,” said Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, director of Royal United Services Institute think-tank.
Sahaf was Iraq’s foreign minister for almost a decade and ambassador to India, Italy and the UN. Although on good terms with Saddam, and a member of his Baath party, there is no love lost between him and the president’s son, Uday.
Saddam removed Sahaf as foreign minister in April 2001 and put him in charge of the information ministry after Uday’s newspaper criticised him.