June 27: President George W. Bush was today reopening the question of appointing a new White House spokesman after he learnt Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf had emerged from hiding and appeared on television.
Al-Sahaf is a man the President avowedly admires and the former Iraqi information minister’s reappearance two-and-a-half months after he vanished in thin air with the declaration that the infidels (American soldiers) were “dying on the gates of Baghdad” has thrown Bush into a dilemma.
The White House spokesman’s job is falling vacant at the end of the month when Ari Fleischer, the incumbent, steps away. Bush has decided to promote his deputy, Scott McLellan, to the post. But McLellan’s appointment, signed and sealed, came under review as Bush considered al-Sahaf’s track record. The President was reminded of a comment he had made in an interview two months ago. “He’s my man, he was great,” Bush had gushed.
“Somebody accused us of hiring him and putting him there. He was a classic.”
Besides, al-Sahaf carries recommendations from none other than the leading US military spokesman in Baghdad, Colonel Guy Shields. “If he is alive and can get himself to the United States, he can become a millionaire as a spokesman for whomever,” Shields was quoted as saying.
Still, al-Sahaf missed being hired as White House spokesman because someone on Bush’s team pointed out that the man — who has come to be known as Comical Ali — turned up on Arab television yesterday with hair that had gone completely white.
White House spokesmen are not allowed to have grey hair. McLellan was last heard celebrating after the close shave.
If you think all this is a flight of fancy — or a pack of lies — the story has come from sources close to outgoing spokesman Fleischer who has been known to, let’s say, twist the truth.
More of that later. In Baghdad, citizens blinked in disbelief at the sight of Saddam Hussain’s “lying machine”. Some joked, referring to his white hair, that the man on TV was al-Sahaf’s older brother. “He aged in two months. It’s like it’s his older brother,” said Wissam al-Ani, who runs a café in Baghdad.
There was also this story that al-Sahaf was forced to come overground because his dye had run out. Ahmed Jassem, a customer at the café, said it proved al-Sahaf did “not have the means to import expensive hair-dying products. We all lived in poverty at the time Saddam’s people abused public money. I’m happy to see him without his hair dyed. He now looks more normal and serene. It is as if he removed the ugly mask of the Saddam regime”.
The former minister, who gained international fame for his wondrous assessments of the war on Iraqi state TV, now looks a pale shadow of his old bombastic self — gaunt, thin and not so brave.
“A difficult situation has passed by, not for one person but for everyone,” he said in a TV clip on Dubai-based al-Arabiya.
Having once branded US and British leaders as “an international gang of criminal bastards”, al-Sahaf had to surrender to those same people. “Via some friends, I went to the Americans… and there was an interrogation about a number of issues concerning my work,” he added.
In Baghdad, people reacted to his re-emergence with anything but anger. Salam Khudeir, a translator, said: “It is very important for al-Sahaf to come out on television because the Iraqi people are lost. They need to see with their own eyes that the regime in Iraq has changed.”
Not all are so generous. Abdel Hussein al-Shummari said he was “as big a liar as the Americans who said they were coming to liberate us when they were just coming to steal our oil and leave our country in chaos”.
Al-Shummari may not be aware but official information purveyors in America don’t do too badly either. Take Fleischer, for instance. After the spaceship carrying, among others, Kalpana Chawla, the astronaut of Indian origin, blew up, he said Bush had been to the Houston space centre when he was Texas governor. It was found to be incorrect.
He was also found to have fudged facts about the President’s trip to an aircraft carrier from where he announced the end of the Iraq war.
There’s also this small matter about Saddam possessing weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible reason for Bush going to war.
It’s not known what Fleischer’s next job will be. But al-Sahaf’s talent obviously lies in comedy. Even in surrender, comedy has stayed with him. The Americans didn’t want him but he showed up nonetheless. Some would call it tragi-comedy.