cairo times and the information minister

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    A star is born

    Charming, entertaining and with a great vocabulary, Sahhaf's increasingly intriguing pronouncements have earned him a following

    Jailan Zayan and Ashraf Khalil

    Every war in the media era has created its share of new stars. The Gulf War in 1991 made a household name out of Peter Arnett, while General "Stormin" Norman Schwarzkopf gained fame for the bravado he brought to his daily media briefings.

    This time around, there’s CNN’s Walter "blood and guts" Rodgers spewing crowd-pleasing Tom Clancy-ish clichés from his desert embed, Rageh Omar–BBC’s ultra-cool and incisive man in Baghdad–and the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid (a Cairo Associated Press alumnus) whose evocative reporting from the besieged capital may be one of the war’s most enduring print legacies.

    But the most unlikely media star to emerge from the end of the Saddam Hussein regime may just be the one whose job is most in jeopardy. Iraqi Minister of Information Muhammad Saeed Al Sahhaf’s statements have become the highlight of the day for many of those watching the conflict on TV.

    With a roguish grin and a twinkle in his eye, Sahaf has remained utterly nonplussed in the face of his government’s seemingly imminent demise. In the process, he has gained his own cult following among many Arab viewers. Sahhaf’s aura of confidence, along with the surprising resilience of Iraqi fighters in the first weeks of the war, have become an unlikely source of pride for an Arab world which has watched the invasion in largely impotent anger.

    "He’s the comic relief of the war," said Salwa, a 59-year-old Egyptian teacher. "At the same time, he’s the voice of victory that we want to believe."

    Sahhaf’s expressions range from snarling defiance to obvious deep amusement. He seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

    In English, he comes off as a little ridiculous, but in Arabic, the former Iraqi foreign minister’s choice of words is salty in an old-school way. Words like "mercenaries," "thugs" and "animals" are sprinkled liberally throughout every sentence. By far, Sahhaf’s favorite world is ulug–guaranteed to pop up a dozen times per press conference–and it almost defies translation. One Arabic linguist concluded that the closest equivalent would be "louts." Last week the London-based Arabic daily Al Sharq Al Awsat devoted an article to exploring the linguistic and cultural roots of Sahhaf’s unique vocabulary.

    "I wait for his press conference every day," said Sherifa, a mother of two in Cairo, "he is the only entertainment we get, in this godawful war."

    For extra entertainment value, there’s the sideshow of watching Sahhaf’s official translator attempt to convey the flavor of his boss’s words. Sometimes, he skips the really fun stuff all together and just goes with watered-down paraphrasing. But other times, he adds personal spice that Sahhaf never said. At one point, the translator finished off a Sahhaf rant by ad-libbing, "Go to hell, I say, go to hell!"

    In the first two weeks of the war, Sahhaf’s statements bore at least some connection to actual on-the-ground events. In fact, he sometimes came off as far more credible than the US Central Command spokespeople. When CentCom reported that the crucial port city of Umm Qasr had fallen under coalition control, Sahhaf quickly denied it. Turns out he was right, and Umm Qasr lasted through several more days and several more erroneous claims of coalition victory.

    As US infantry raced north through the desert towards Baghdad, Sahhaf seemed to gain confidence. "Come to the cities," he roared–promising that they would be met with "bullets and shoes."

    In early April, when US forces swept through Republican Guard divisions that had been decimated by heavy air strikes and occupied Saddam International airport, Sahhaf retained a connection to reality. He acknowledged the US conquest of the airport, but promised a wave of Iraqi "unconventional attacks" that would push the invaders out. The attacks never came, and from that point on, Sahhaf’s statements officially moved from spin into the realm of delusion.

    On 5 April, as the Western media was reporting a bold and bloody US raid from the airport through the streets of Baghdad, Sahhaf was claiming that the airport had been retaken by the Iraqis. When reporters asked if they could go see the newly liberated airport, Sahhaf laughed richly and said, "Of course." Then after the press conference, ministry minders said the airport tour wouldn’t be happening after all because it wasn’t safe.

    By 7 April, US troops were occupying the Baghdad parade grounds and one of the main presidential palaces in southwestern Baghdad and calmly chatting live with a Fox News reporter. Meanwhile, a couple hundred meters away on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, Sahhaf was standing on the roof of the Palestine Hotel telling reporters that none of this was really happening.

    The real story, he said, US troops had been taught "a lesson that will not be forgotten in history," and were "committing suicide against the walls of Baghdad." He then apologized to "our guests" the foreign journalists for the inconvenience of all the explosions and thick smoke and promised, "we will finish them soon."

    One Western television channel’s live translator actually started cracking up in mid-sentence. Back at the parade grounds, the Fox News reporter relayed Sahhaf’s sentiments to a US soldier who responded, "Maybe we should go over and say ‘hi.’" Indeed it seems like the only appropriate ending for this televised point-counterpoint would be for a US tank to roll by in the background of one of Sahhaf’s live shots with a soldier holding up a "Hi mom" sign.

    As of Cairo Times press time, Sahhaf had yet to announce that the heroic Iraqi forces have taken Philadelphia and are marching on Washington DC, but it wouldn’t be surprising. In a defining moment, he wrapped up his 7 April rooftop press conference by smiling extra-wide and urging reporters not to take coalition propaganda at face value.
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