Tuesday, April 8
COMMENTARY:Information chief unshakable as Baghdad falls around him
Ashraf Khalil, San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 2003

Doha, Qatar -- Every recent war has created its share of media stars, but the most unlikely star to emerge from this one may be the quixotic Iraqi minister of information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf.

With a roguish grin and a twinkle in his eye, al-Sahhaf has remained utterly unruffled in the face of his government's seemingly imminent demise. In the process, he has gained his own cult following among many Arab television viewers. [...]

"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."

Al-Sahhaf's defense of Saddam Hussein's regime ranges from snarling defiance and scorn to deep amusement.

In English translation, 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 as he condemns the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

Al-Sahhaf's favorite epithet -- guaranteed to pop up a dozen times per appearance -- is ulug, which almost defies translation, although one linguist said the closest equivalent would be "louts."

For extra entertainment value, there's the sideshow of watching al-Sahhaf's official translator attempt to convey the flavor of his boss' words.

Sometimes, he skips the really fun stuff altogether and goes with watered- down paraphrasing. But other times, he adds a personal spice that al-Sahhaf never said. At one point, the translator finished off an al-Sahhaf rant by ad- libbing, "Go to hell, I say, go to hell!" [...]

Al-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 that has watched the invasion in impotent anger. [...]

As U.S. infantry raced north through the desert toward Baghdad, al-Sahhaf seemed to gain confidence.

"Come to the cities," he roared, promising that they would be met with "bullets and shoes." The shoe reference is a special bit of local flavor. In most Middle Eastern cultures, the sole of the shoe is considered unclean, and to be hit with a shoe is particularly humiliating. [...]

Is Al-Sahhaf an Unwitting Turncoat?
He did in his brother-in-law. Did he do in Saddam?
By Timothy Noah, [Gossip Column: Chatterbox], April 8, 2003

The press can't get enough of Mohammed Saeed "God is grilling their stomachs in hell" al-Sahhaf, Iraq's magical-realist minister of information, who today, according to Agence France Presse, called on the United States to "surrender or be burned in their tanks."

This morning brought al-Sahhaf profiles by Reuters and the Associated Press and al-Sahhaf columns by Dale McFeatters of Scripps Howard and Ashraf Khalil of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chicago Tribune had two al-Sahhaf pieces (click here for a feature by Hugh Dellios, here for a commentary by Leonard Pitts).

We learned that al-Sahhaf is a Shiite (out of favor in this regime, even though Shiites are in the majority), that he came to power by ratting out his brother-in-law, and that, on one documented occasion, he actually got it right while the U.S. Central Command got it wrong.

Can a Washington Post "Style" section piece and a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" essay be far behind? (For Chatterbox's own previous contribution—a canvass of public-relations professionals on al-Sahhaf's technique—click here. [...]

Iraqi Information Minister Uses Insults
SAM F. GHATTAS, The Associated Press, April 8, 2003; 2:26 PM

DOHA, Qatar - The television pictures of U.S. tanks in Baghdad seemed undeniable, but Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's spokesman denied them anyway - with his usual flair for insult.

"There is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad," Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf asserted outside Baghdad's Palestine Hotel on Monday. [...]

Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, face of Iraqi government
Reuters, April 8, 2003

Even as U.S. troops roamed through a presidential complex in the heart of Baghdad on Monday and as tanks rumbled down streets a few hundred meters 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 ministry of information. "As our leader Saddam Hussein said, 'God is grilling their stomachs in hell.'" (Sahaf: U.S. troops will be burnt)

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 U.S. leaders "an international gang of criminal bastards," "blood-sucking bastards," ignorant imperialists, losers and fools.

He calls the U.S. 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 U.S. and British reports of the war as lies and "illusions." [...]

China under pressure over Sars: World Health doctors go to the source
BBC News, April 2003

The World Health Organization has urged the Chinese government to reveal all it knows about the outbreak of the mystery Sars illness which has spread from southern China around the world.
The appeal came after a team of epidemiologists from the WHO ended a six-day tour of Guangdong province in southern China, where the virus is believed to have first appeared. ....

... Chinese experts also announced a new theory on how the Sars illness raced through an entire apartment block in Hong Kong.

They believe that cockroaches may have carried the infection from flat to flat.
The cockroach theory was voiced by Hong Kong Deputy Director of Health Leung Pak-yin on Monday.

He was talking about how the disease spread rapidly through an apartment block at Amoy Gardens in Kowloon.

In just a few days, more than 300 new cases arose among residents of the block.

The cases left health officials baffled and deeply concerned, as many of the 300 had had no direct contact with anyone who had Sars.

Leung said: "The drainage may be the reason. It is possible that the cockroaches carried the virus into the homes."

Scientists are increasingly confident that the illness is caused by a virus related to that which causes the common cold.

A team from the University of Hong Kong studied 50 patients with Sars from five separate outbreak clusters.

Nine out of 10 showed evidence of infection by a coronavirus. In contrast, the virus was not found in any healthy people that the scientists also examined.

The scientists, who published their work on The Lancet website on Tuesday, said the virus they had isolated was not one of the two known human coronaviruses. They believe it may have originated in animals.

Spokesman brazen in denying obvious
A joke in West, a hero to some Arabs
By Hugh Dellios, April 8, 2003

DOHA, Qatar -- The U.S. Marines stood Monday on Baghdad's National Parade Grounds, right under the crossed-swords monument where Saddam Hussein used to watch military parades. Gunfire crackled across the city center.

Just across the Tigris River, seemingly in an orbit of his own, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was performing a daily denial routine so bizarre that it makes him seem like a character in a late-night comedy skit.

The invasion is a lie, al-Sahhaf insisted. The "infidel" Americans actually were nowhere near downtown Baghdad, he said.

"Don't repeat the lies of the liars," al-Sahhaf cautioned foreign journalists on a hotel rooftop practically within sight of the battle. "As our leader Saddam Hussein said, God is grilling their stomachs in hell. I think we will finish them soon."

Every day, al-Sahhaf appears before the press corps in Baghdad and denies everything, no matter how obvious the Iraqi regime's daily defeats and no matter that U.S. air strikes destroyed the official center for his news conferences.

"The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad," he asserted after seeking out his rooftop audience Monday.

It is not just a vacation from reality.

A longtime Baath Party crony of Hussein, al-Sahhaf is trying desperately to rally the party faithful still fighting in the streets for Hussein. Iraqi TV and electricity have been knocked out in Baghdad, but some Iraqis can listen on their radios. [...]

Al-Sahhaf, 63, is not one of Saddam's most fearsome insiders. But he reputedly was part of a gang that Hussein founded to attack Baath Party opponents in the 1960s, and he later was head of Iraqi broadcasting and ambassador to India, Sweden, Italy and the UN.

Notorious for his temper, al-Sahhaf's creative choice of adjectives has won admirers far and wide. Letter writers to prominent Arabic newspapers debate the linguistic roots of his best insults.

Iraq's enemies are not just enemies, they are "louts," "blood-sucking bastards," "wet dogs," "war criminals," "stooges" and "creeps."
Two years ago at the UN, he called Secretary of State Colin Powell "stupid" to his face.

The U.S. invaders? "They are most welcome. We will butcher them," al-Sahhaf has said. Another time he said, "We will welcome them with bullets and shoes," a particularly grave threat in the Arab world.

The capture of Baghdad's airport last week? Never happened, al-Sahhaf said.

"It is difficult for the U.S. forces that are surrounded in Saddam airport to come out alive," he boasted Saturday. "Now the entire direction is in our favor and we will annihilate what is left of the forces that attacked the airport."

U.S. and British officials have reacted with ridicule and derision to al-Sahhaf's claims and boasts, matching his smirk with smirks of their own.

"I personally would like to know where he [received] his marketing degree," joked Air Marshal Brian Burridge, Britain's top military commander in the region.

During al-Sahhaf's denials on Monday, an Arabic translator for one of Britain's global satellite TV stations couldn't control himself and broke out laughing on the air.

But across the Arab world, it is the Pentagon's glitzy film footage and pro-U.S. version of events that look dubious.

In this region, al-Sahhaf is not only more credible, he's a celebrity in his green uniform and black beret, pistol on hip, tongue-lashing the imperialist invaders with abandon.

"I trust the Iraqi TV, and the information minister, Sahhaf, I especially trust him," said Khalid Daraj, an Iraqi taxi driver in Amman, Jordan. "He gives the news with honesty, and he always tells the truth because if he lied once, no one would trust him again."
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