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Iraq's Former Information Minister May Be Arab World's Most Wanted 'Celebrity' - 2003-04-30


Former Iraq minister of information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf is not on the list of the 55 leading officials in Saddam Hussein's government that are most wanted by U.S. officials, an Arab satellite television station wants him very much.

Mr. Sahaf has become something of a cult hero throughout the Arab world with his boastful predictions of an Iraqi victory and his expression of disdain for President Bush.

While Saddam Hussein is at the top of that most-wanted list that U.S. officials compiled at the end of the war, there is another Iraqi figure that many people throughout the Arab world seem more interested in. His name is Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. He was the Iraqi minister of information during the U.S.-led war.

One cannot help but remember Mr. Sahaf's often colorful news conferences, and some of his defiant descriptions of President Bush and his administration.

"This villain, George Bush and all his gang. These are the people targeted by criminal George Bush and his gang. Those villains in Washington and London. They are a superpower of villains. This villain in the White House. We will continue capturing his villains, his mercenaries and he will face the tragedy."

He called the Americans cowards and outlaws. He promised victory for Iraq, and when U.S. troops were only a few hundred meters from where he was standing in downtown Baghdad, Mr. Sahaf boasted that Iraqi troops had forced American soldiers into shameful retreat.

According to Sa'id Sadek Amin, a public opinion and media expert in the Arab world, Mr. Sahaf became a cult hero because he told the Arab public what it wanted to hear.

"The way Sahaf was presenting what was going on was very sarcastic, and also it was uplifting Arab morale. He was popular because the audience wanted him to win, wanted to believe him, even if he was telling lies. They wanted to believe him, they wanted to feel that the Americans are not winning, and he was providing them with what they wanted to hear," Mr. Amin said.

Mr. Amin said most people in the Arab world were aware that Mr. Sahaf was lying, but they watched with interest because they found him to be interesting.

Which is why the Dubai-based Arab satellite television channel al-Arabiya wants to find him. The group director of the station, Ali al-Hadethi, said he wants to hire Mr. Sahaf. "He has a lot of information to offer our viewers. He was the minister of information for the Iraqi regime, and I think our viewers are interested to hear what he has to say. He became a celebrity during the war and he has a lot of things to say and offer our viewers," he said.

But Arab opinion expert Sa'id Sadek Amin says any media organization that hires Mr. Sahaf would be limited by the former information minister's credibility.

"It will be maybe a comic program, because today he [has] lost his credibility and he was not telling the truth. So, any media that would employ him, it must be a program like Jay Leno or David Letterman comedy shows," Mr. Amin said.

President Bush, in describing his impression of Mr. Sahaf, mockingly told American television network NBC, "He was great. He was a classic. He is my man."

Acknowledging the issue of credibility, al-Arabiya said Mr. Sahaf might fit in to its entertainment programming, if and when it can find the popular former Iraqi spokesman.

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