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Iraqi Information Minister's Reports Highlight Wider Dilemma of Media Coverage in Arab World - 2003-04-07

Iraq's Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf has been a daily presence on television screens around the world, denying coalition claims of advances, and claiming Iraqi successes, even when pictures and journalists' on-scene reports clearly showed he was wrong.

Monday morning, people in the Middle East woke up to live television broadcasts showing coalition forces taking control of the main presidential palace in the heart of Baghdad.

Still, Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf stood on a rooftop in central Baghdad, almost within sight of U.S. tanks, and told reporters Iraqi forces had pushed back a coalition effort to enter the city. "We besieged them, and we killed most of them. And I think, we will finish them soon. My feelings, as usual, we will slaughter them all. Those invaders, their tombs will be here in Iraq," he said.

Mr. Sahaf described the city as safe and protected.

Analysts say the minister is doing what he has been ordered to do, despite compelling evidence he is wrong. Former Egyptian army General Mohammed Kadry Said, who now heads the military unit at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said Mr. Sahaf is doing his job.

"Never show weakness until the last moment. And, even [if] Sahaf is a liar in some of his declarations, he is in a situation that he was able not to show weakness and show collapse to the last moment. And, maybe he knows that others know the truth, but he is standing to the end, on the street, doing his job," he said.

Mr. Said said the Iraqi regime will never admit a battlefield defeat because, he said, it wants its troops to keep fighting.

But political science professor Walid Kazziha at American University in Cairo said Minister Sahaf also has another audience in mind. He believes the minister is trying to appeal to people around the Middle East, who he said want to believe the Iraqis are conducting a successful resistance.

"There are a lot of people who are willing to believe in that, and not only in Iraq, but also all around us. There are a lot of people who have wishful thinking, and they are willing to believe that. And he's responding to this, and it has, perhaps, an importance not in practical military terms as much as in terms of morale," he said.

Arab media and public opinion expert Said Sadek Amin agrees. And he said state-controlled Arab media play on that wishful thinking, not only to claim successes, but also to hide their own problems. "In Algeria, 200,000 people had been slaughtered in the last 10 years, and there is no single demonstration or proper coverage in the Arab media about that. In Syria, the Syrian regime in the 1980s attacked the city of Hama with planes and tanks and artillery, and killed tens-of-thousands of people. There were no demonstrations, no media coverage. North Yemen, in 1994, invaded southern Yemen, and attacked with rockets and missiles in Aden, and killed thousands of people, but there was no media coverage," Mr. Amin said. "If a foreigner attacks an Arab country and kills one or two people, people will call Jihad, or holy wars. But, if an Arab ruler or an Arab regime or an Arab terrorist organization kills thousands of people, nobody raises a finger, or makes an issue and this is really a dilemma. It's something in Arab culture that has to be addressed," he said.

But most of those situations do not get the scrutiny from the foreign media that the war in Iraq has gotten. So, the 63-year-old Iraqi information minister and former foreign minister has a problem other Arab officials usually do not face.

The head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi, says pictures of coalition successes on every television screen in the Middle East are making Minister Sahaf lose any semblance of credibility, even among those who want to believe him.

"I'm sure some people may like what he's saying, but I'm sure they've sort of lost faith in what he's saying. And, I'm sure people in Baghdad, you know, everyone knows where fighting is taking place. We've seen the pictures. At the beginning, what he was saying had some credence. But eventually he lost touch with reality, and I don't think lots of people will follow that trend," he said.

Analysts say the Iraqi information minister gained an enthusiastic following in the Arab world early in the war. But they say, as more and more of his statements are proved false, his popularity is falling, and his performance may have made it more difficult for Arab governments to convince their people they're telling the truth in the future.