Sahhaf, Mohammed Said al-
Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf
Iraqi information minister known for his defiant and overly optimistic statements during the 2003 Iraq War
"I reassure you Baghdad is safe. There is no presence of the American columns in the city of Baghdad. None at all."
Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf quoted in War on Baghdad.
As Iraq's Information Minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf was the main public spokesman for Saddam Hussein's government during the 2003 Iraq War. He became known for the vast array of colorful insults he used to describe the American and British troops that were invading his country. As the U.S.-led coalition of more than thirty-five countries closed in on Baghdad, al-Sahhaf repeatedly insisted that Iraq's army was on the verge of a major victory. Journalists gave him the nicknames "Baghdad Bob" and "Comical Ali" because of his defiant and overly optimistic statements to the media.
Rises through the ranks of Iraq's Baathist government
Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf was born in 1940 in Hilla, Iraq. His hometown is located south of Baghdad, near the city of Karbala. Like the majority of Iraq's citizens, al-Sahhaf was raised in the Shiite branch of the Islamic religion. He studied journalism at the University of Baghdad and initially planned to become an English teacher. But his career plans changed in 1963, when he became interested in politics and joined the Iraqi Baath Party.
Baathism is a radical political movement founded in the 1940s with the goal of uniting the Arab world to create one powerful Arab state. Baath means "rebirth" or "renaissance" in Arabic. The Baath Party succeeded in overthrowing the Iraqi government in 1963. The Baathists held power for less than a year before being ousted in a military coup (a sudden and violent overthrowing of the government), but they regained control of Iraq in 1968. One of the most influential figures in the Baathist government was its head of security, Saddam Hussein (see entry), who controlled the forces of violence and terror that helped the party maintain power.
Once the Baath Party returned to power in 1968, al-Sahhaf entered government service. He served as director of the Baghdad Broadcasting and Television agency for the next six years. In 1974 he was appointed as Iraq's ambassador to India. He later served as the Iraqi ambassador to Nepal and Myanmar (Burma). In 1977 he became Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations (UN).
When Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979, al-Sahhaf became one of the few Shiite members of his Sunni Muslim government. (Sunni and Shiite are the two main branches of the Islamic religion. Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, but this majority was repressed under Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.) He was also one of a small number of high-ranking Iraqi officials who did not come from Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in northern Iraq. Despite these differences, al-Sahhaf gradually rose through the ranks of Iraq's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He became deputy minister in 1983, and he also served as his country's ambassador to Italy and Sweden.
Becomes Iraq's foreign minister following the 1991 Persian Gulf War
In August 1990 the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. Hussein argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. He also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. The invasion set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Hussein immediately withdraw his troops from Kuwait. Many of these countries then began sending military forces to the Persian Gulf region as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. When Iraq failed to withdraw its troops from Kuwait by the UN deadline of January 15, 1991, the coalition forces launched a war. The war succeeded in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation on February 27.
As part of the agreement that officially ended the war, Iraq agreed to destroy all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Hussein also agreed to allow UN weapons inspectors to enter the country in order to monitor its progress. As the years passed, however, Iraq consistently failed to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors. The international community tried several different approaches to get Iraq to comply with the terms of the peace agreement, including military strikes and economic sanctions (trade restrictions intended to punish a country for violating international law), but none were effective.
In 1993, two years after the war ended, al-Sahhaf was appointed as Iraq's foreign minister. He thus became his country's top diplomat and main representative in international affairs. In this position, he faced the difficult task of explaining Iraq's refusal to cooperate with UN weapons inspections. He also tried to convince the United Nations to lift the economic sanctions that were taking a toll on Iraq's economy.
In 2001 al-Sahhaf was removed from his post as foreign minister. His performance had come under increasing criticism over the years, and he was often compared unfavorably to his predecessor, Tariq Aziz. Some foreign leaders complained that al-Sahhaf was too combative. They also noted that he did not appear to have the authority to make decisions on behalf of Hussein's government. Within Iraq, rumors circulated that Hussein's oldest son, Uday Hussein, had forced al-Sahhaf out of office. The rumors said that Uday was angry because al-Sahhaf had failed to win the support of other Arab nations for lifting the UN sanctions against Iraq.
Becomes Iraq's information minister during the 2003 Iraq War
The terrorist attacks that struck the United States on September 11, 2001, led President George W. Bush (see entry) to adopt a more aggressive policy toward nations that he considered threats to world security, such as Iraq. He argued that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and could provide such weapons to terrorist groups. Although Iraq allowed the UN weapons inspectors to return in late 2002, Bush was not satisfied and threatened to take military action to disarm Iraq and remove Hussein from power.
As the ongoing disagreements between Iraq and the United States escalated toward war, al-Sahhaf was appointed as Iraq's minister of information. Since Hussein limited his public appearances out of concern for his own safety, al-Sahhaf often served as main spokesman for the Iraqi regime. But al-Sahhaf was still viewed as an outsider within the top levels of Hussein's government during this time. In fact, some Iraqis claimed that his appointment as information minister reflected Hussein's indifference about al-Sahhaf's life and future.
In any case, al-Sahhaf became the face of the Iraqi government in the weeks leading up to the 2003 Iraq War. He seemed to enjoy his role. He appeared at daily press conferences in Baghdad wearing a military uniform, complete with black beret and pistol. Using strong, defiant language, he repeatedly denied that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or had ties to terrorist groups. He also used colorful insults to describe Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (see entry) for threatening to invade Iraq.
Descriptions of war attract a worldwide TV audience
Despite a lack of UN support, U.S. and British military forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003 (March 19 in the United States). Once the war began, al-Sahhaf continued his daily press conferences, which attracted a worldwide audience on both Arab and Western television networks. The Iraqi information minister became a source of amusement, and sometimes confusion, for journalists in Baghdad and viewers around the world. He consistently presented a view of the conflict that was skewed in Iraq's favor. As the war continued, his statements became increasingly fantastic and more obviously at odds with the reality of the situation. Some analysts claimed that al-Sahhaf presented an upbeat assessment of the war because he felt it was his job to raise the spirits of the Iraqi people and encourage them to fight the invaders.
Even though the information al-Sahhaf presented was rarely accurate, journalists attended his press conferences because he provided them with interesting "sound bites." Shortly after the war began, for example, he led reporters on a tour of a palace that had been destroyed by coalition bombs. He said that the site clearly contradicted U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld 's (see entry) claims that only military targets were hit in the coalition bombing campaign. According to the Internet site called "We Love the Iraqi Information Minister," Al-Sahhaf then described the coalition leaders as a "gang of international rascals" that "deserve only to be beaten by shoes."
Al-Sahhaf often claimed that the Iraqi army was successfully resisting the invasion. At one point he urged the U.S. troops to surrender, saying that their situation was hopeless. "It is better for you this way because if you do not we will cut your heads off, all of you," he declared as quoted on "We Love the Iraqi Information Minister." When international news organizations aired footage of U.S. troops advancing toward Baghdad, al-Sahhaf claimed that the footage came from a Hollywood movie. After the coalition captured Saddam International Airport outside Baghdad, al-Sahhaf insisted that Iraqi forces had successfully defended the airport. "We have fed them a sour taste, a poison yesterday, all this by the brave forces of Saddam Hussein," he stated on "We Love the Iraqi Information Minister."
Even as battles raged in the streets of Baghdad, just a few hundred yards from his location, the information minister told reporters that there were no American troops within 100 miles (161 kilometers) of the city. "I reassure you Baghdad is safe," he said defiantly, as quoted in War on Saddam. "There is no presence of the American columns in the city of Baghdad. None at all." Instead, al-Sahhaf proclaimed that Iraq was on the verge of winning the war. "[The enemy forces] are beginning to commit suicide at the gates of Baghdad and I'd encourage them to commit more suicide," he declared.
Becomes a cult favorite
As the war progressed, al-Sahhaf attracted a worldwide following. Millions of people watched his daily press conferences to see what he would say next. Millions of others tracked his statements on an Internet site called "We Love the Iraqi Information Minister." The site featured sound bites and pictures of al-Sahhaf in various dangerous situations proclaiming, "Everything is just fine." His likeness appeared on T-shirts and mugs and in countless political cartoons. The American media gave him the nickname "Baghdad Bob," while the British press dubbed him "Comical Ali" (a reference to "Chemical Ali," the alias of Ali Hassan al-Majid, an Iraqi general who allegedly ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish people of northern Iraq).
But not everyone viewed al-Sahhaf as a ridiculous figure. His descriptions of the war were well received by some Iraqis, who felt that he expressed their feelings of anger over the U.S.-led invasion. When he gave statements in Arabic, al-Sahhaf often used long-forgotten expressions that sent many viewers to their dictionaries. One example is "uluj," an insulting term that scholars explained could mean anything from "blood-sucking worm" to "mad donkey." Surprisingly, al-Sahhaf was the only source of information available in some parts of the Arab world. For viewers who heard nothing but his account of events, the fall of Baghdad to coalition forces on April 9 came as a surprise.
Al-Sahhaf held his last official press conference on April 8, the day before the fall of Baghdad. After that, his whereabouts remained unknown for more than two months. Some people believed that he had been killed in the fighting, while others claimed that he had gone into hiding. In late June he resurfaced to give two brief interviews on Arab television. In comparison to his demeanor during the war, al-Sahhaf seemed withdrawn and uncommunicative. He said that he had surrendered to U.S. forces, undergone several weeks of questioning, and then was released. He also discussed his plans to write a book. As of 2004, he was believed to be living in the United Arab Emirates.
Where to Learn More
"Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, undated. Available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammed_Saeed_al-Sahaf (accessed on March 29, 2004).
"Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf." Biography Resource Center Online. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.
"Profile: Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf." BBC News, June 27, 2003. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2927031.stm (accessed on March 29, 2004).
Rooney, Ben. The Daily Telegraph War on Saddam: The Complete Story of the Iraq Campaign. London: Robinson, 2003.
"We Love the Iraqi Foreign Minister." Available online at http://www.welovetheiraqiinformationminister.com/ (accessed on April 9, 2004).