From Saddam Hussein’s Information Minster to a phenomenon of pop culture. Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf refuses to accept, in his statements to the media, the taking of Baghdad by the US military. His comments made him famous as Baghdad Bob and made him a star in the Western world
“The Americans are going to surrender or be burned in their tanks. They will surrender, it is them who will surrender.”
On the 8th of April, 2003, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf resolutely faced the reporters. On the roof of Palestine Hotel, in Baghdad, Saddam’s information minister denied the undeniable. Behind him, smoke filled the sky and sirens could be heard in the background. US soldiers were invading the city. But Sahhaf was determined: "There are no American troops in Baghdad!”. It would be his last public address as Saddam Hussein’s information minister. The next day, Baghdad would fall.
From Iraq to the world
The face and the voice of resistance. Without ever stepping foot on the battlefield, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was one of the figures of the Iraq war.
Foreign minister of Saddam Hussein’s regime for almost a decade, he was appointed minister of information in April 2001. A role that propelled him to stardom.
His charisma went beyond his position and Sahhaf’s fame crossed borders; the truthfulness of the facts became practically irrelevant, eclipsed by a passionate and troop moralising speech; the emotional power of his statements was more important than his informative duty.
For Iraqi people – with echoes in the rest of the Arab world – he was no longer just a minister; he was a national hero and a brave defender of the Iraqi honour.
In all of his addresses – more or less truthful, very fierce or not so much, but always enthusiastic –, a common idea: the regime was fighting bravely and beating the western enemy by a large margin.
A strategy anything but naive. Sahhaf knew that, on the other side, the enemy was also listening to him. His words were one of the assets used by the Iraqi regime in the psychological game of the war.
In March 2003, the British-American coalition started the military intervention in Iraq by bombarding Baghdad.
Around 500 thousand people were killed during the war in Iraq.
From minister to meme
His daily bulletins, marked by expressive and endlessly optimistic comments, crossed borders and captivated the western people. Sahhaf broke the seriousness of the news cycles and represented a never seen before phenomenon in international Media, becoming a cult figure.
The charisma of the Iraqi minister even reached the American President, George W. Bush. "Someone accused us of hiring him and putting him there. He was a classic,” said the Republican leader, who revealed he even interrupted meetings to watch the comments of the Iraqi minister.
In early April 2003, the minister was nicknamed “Baghdad Bob” by the American Media, due to his exaggerated – and questionable – bulletins. The British Media preferred the term “Comical Ali”, a pun related to “Chemical Ali”, the nickname of the Iraqi Interior Minister during the Persian Gulf War.
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf became an Internet phenomenon, inspiring hundreds of memes, fan pages and even merchandise, such as t-shirts, mugs and plastic dolls.
On the 3rd of April, 2003, the domain BaghdadBob.com was registered, with a humoristic compilation of the minister’s comments. In less than two months, it had over 140 thousand visits.
The Iraqi minister couldn’t avoid the Media attention – on the contrary, he longed for it, uttering an endless cornucopia of soundbites which the journalists eagerly reproduced.
He was eloquent when referring to the American and British leaders: “an international gang of criminal bastards," "blood-sucking bastards," ignorant imperialists, losers and fools.” The President of the US? "I speak better English than this villain Bush.” What about the American troops? "The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad.”
Saeed al-Sahhaf’s best quotes are compiled in the DVD “Comical Ali”.
His bulletins might be impressive, but no words would be able to avoid the invasion of Baghdad. The rope tied by the American troops around the Iraqi regime’s neck was getting tighter and tighter.
The end of an era
In April 2003, TV broadcasts showed a split screen with very different footage. On one side, Sahhaf was saying that there were no coalition forces in Baghdad; on the other side, American tanks were rolling down the streets. A symbolic moment, according to Captain Frank Thorp, at Qatar’s U.S. Central Command. "At that point, I knew the war of words was over."
On the Iraqi side, some people weren’t that convicted. It’s thought that Sahhaf’s bulletins fooled even the national troops, making them believe the Iraqi forces had regained control over the Baghdad airport.
An official was sent to confirm the rumours. "Are you out of your minds? The whole damn American Army is at the airport!"
Saddam’s statue had been toppled and the regime was on its dying bed, but Sahhaf was going nowhere. In the early morning of the 10th of April, reality knocked on his door, at the steady rhythm of the tanks that were getting closer to the broadcast studios.
"Sahhaf slowly removed his black beret,” said Raibah Hassan, studio manager. “He told us to keep on re-broadcasting until 3 am. He said goodbye, and then disappeared out of the back door.” With his departure, Saddam’s dying regime lost its voice.
In 2015, American President Barack Obama was compared to Baghdad Bob when he said that “ISIS is contained”. The leader’s statements on the US national security were considered by some outlets to be as far away from reality as the bulletins of the former Iraqi minister.
After being arrested by the American forces for interrogation, in June 2003, Sahhaf was back in the limelight with interviews for Al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV. The former minister refused to take back his statements on the invasion of Baghdad, saying his information was from "authentic sources – many authentic sources.” When it came to his performance as a minister, Sahhaf was peremptory: “The information was correct, but the interpretations were not.”
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf stepped awayfrom the Media stage and his current location is uncertain, although there are rumours that he is in Qatar.
Over a decade after the camera and the microphone were turned off, he still is immortalised in the Media system as one of the main figures of the Iraq War. Without guns or commendations, without spilling blood or trying to escape the bullets; only with the power of images and words.