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Iraqi information minister's defiance makes him hero among Arabs

CAIRO, Egypt—Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister whose cheerful denials of reality and colorful use of invective have been a daily morale booster for millions of angry Arabs, gave another bravura performance on Tuesday as American forces tightened their grip on Baghdad.

Rejecting overwhelming evidence to the contrary, al-Sahhaf insisted that the Iraqi army had British and American troops on the run.

"We are in control," he said. "They are in a state of hysteria. Losers, they think that by killing civilians and trying to distort the feelings of the people they will win. I think they will not win, those bastards."

Through the war, al-Sahhaf has played the swashbuckling Arab nationalist, swaggering into daily news conferences wearing an olive-drab uniform, a jaunty black beret and a holstered pistol. To the delight of Arabs hungry for signs of Iraqi resistance, al-Sahhaf has made the Arabic language his weapon of choice, coolly heaping abuse on enemy forces and skewering their claims of battlefield victories.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday outside Baghdad's Palestine Hotel minutes after it was struck by U.S. tank fire, al-Sahhaf advised British and American soldiers they should "surrender or be burned in their tanks." As an aide glanced nervously at the sky, al-Sahhaf, 63, offered a military analysis built around a pun on the Arabic word for "backside."

Among U.S. military officials, al-Sahhaf is ridiculed as "Baghdad Bob," a source of great entertainment ripe for parody on "Saturday Night Live."

But while detractors dub him "the minister of misinformation" and criticize his Arabic as vulgar, al-Sahhaf's defiant attitude has made him a hero of sorts in the Arab world, much of which has little or no access to Western media. Fans gather in coffee shops to watch satellite broadcasts of his news conferences and laughingly repeat his zingers to friends and family.

"I am proud of him, of course," said Hisham Singer, an Egyptian electrical engineer. "He is not afraid of anyone."

That al-Sahhaf's insults are sometimes obscure only increases his appeal in a part of the world where language is regarded as a national patrimony. Singer had to turn to a dictionary to figure out the meaning of "alooj," al-Sahhaf's term for enemy forces. According to Arabic aficionados, the classical word means anything from wild donkeys to camels, infidels to bloodsucking worms.

"Mohammed Sahhaf is the joke of the war," said Essam Al Erian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic group. "He makes me smile."

A graduate of Baghdad University with a degree in English literature, al-Sahhaf was Iraq's foreign minister for nearly a decade and has served as ambassador to the United Nations, Italy and India.

A Baath party member since 1963, al-Sahhaf appears to relish the give-and-take with foreign journalists. He often seemed on the verge of grinning as he refuted footage showing coalition troops at Umm Qasr or Saddam International Airport, renamed Baghdad International Airport by U.S. forces.

"We have crushed the whole force which dared to venture there," al-Sahhaf said of the airport battle. "Now they're outside the wall and the heroic Republican Guard is now in control of the whole area . So where are those villainous louts, those mercenaries?"

In fact, some initial reports of coalition gains were inaccurate, winning al-Sahhaf instant credibility among viewers who continue to hope, against all odds, for an Arab victory.

"To me he is more credible than George Bush," said Halla Salema, an Egyptian advertising manager. "He is saying how the battle is progressing, how many soldiers they have killed so far, and I think these are facts and figures the American media is trying to deny or to hide.

"It sounds good to me when I hear that they are progressing and defeating the Americans," she added. "To me the victory of Iraq is happy news."

While Western journalists have complained about the Iraqi news warp, the Arab press has largely taken his analysis at face value. On Monday the headline in one of Egypt's major daily newspapers, was: "The invasion is crumbling."

"What do you want him to say, that they are losing?" asked Safwan Intaher, a legal researcher who was relaxing after work on Monday at a coffee shop in downtown Cairo. "He makes us feel better.

"This war is unfair," Intaher said. "There is no balance between America and Iraq. Iraq is going to lose, but I am still going to be proud."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.