Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Understanding Saddam’s Information Minister “Baghdad Bob”


During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the West was both shocked and amused by the announcements made by Iraq’s Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, better known as “Baghdad Bob.” He repeatedly claimed that the Americans and British were being thrashed, and that Iraq was winning the war. These comments were incomprehensible in the West as their news was reporting a quick and deadly thrust by the U.S. led Coalition, which reached Baghdad in only a matter of weeks. In fact, Minister Sahaf’s pronouncements reflected what Saddam Hussein’s government was actually hearing from its military and officials. This was due to the environment the Iraqi dictator created based upon Iraq’s history, and his conspiratorial mind.
Saddam's Information Minister al-Sahaf became known as "Baghdad Bob" during the 2003 invasion (Wikipedia)
Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf made a name for himself internationally by his unbelievable quotes he gave to the media during the invasion of Iraq. When U.S. troops were on the outskirts of Baghdad he told the press, “They are not any place. They are on the move everywhere. They are a snake moving in the desert. They hold no place in Iraq. This is an illusion.” On April 3, when the Americans reached the Baghdad airport, he said, “We butchered the force present at the airport. We have retaken the airport! There are no Americans there!” Two days later, when U.S. forces were in the center of the capital, the Minister told the press, “They are not near Baghdad. Don’t believe them. … They said they entered with … tanks in the middle of the capital. … This speech is too far from reality. It is a part of this sickness of their plan. There is no … existence to the American troops … in Baghdad at all.” On April 6, he claimed, “Whenever we attack, they retreat. When we pound them with missiles and heavy artillery, they retreat even deeper. But when we stopped pounding, they pushed to the airport for propaganda purposes.” It seemed like the Minister was living in some fantasy world, but in fact, his public pronouncements reflected what the Iraqi regime actually thought was happening during the war.


The state of fear that Saddam Hussein imposed on Iraq created a distorted picture of the 2003 invasion. This started with Saddam’s mistrust of his military. Given the history of coups in the nation, Iraq’s leader was always weary of another happening. The Baath party for example, had seized power in May 1963, only to be kicked out by a countercoup in November. During the 1990s, there were also several attempts to unseat Saddam, one involving the Republican Guard, the elite military unit in the country. This caused the Iraqi dictator to create a series of parallel military and paramilitary forces, such as the Special Republican Guard and the Saddam Fedayeen, each meant to keep the other in check. He also routinely carried out purges of the officer corps. As Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz noted, “If a military leader disappeared one did not ask to know what happened, since it was known that the security services had dealt with the unfortunate individual.” Given this culture, officers were afraid to speak the truth to Saddam out of fear that they might anger him, and be killed as a result. This happened within the government bureaucracy and the Baath Party as well. The result was when the U.S. led Coalition invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, the leadership received rosy news from the battlefield. Soldiers, local officials, and the Baath Party offices all reported fierce fighting with the Americans. When the rare negative memo was received it was dismissed. That’s why on March 30, when U.S. forces were in Najaf, Saddam believed that the war was a stalemate. That same day, his secretary told the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to relay to France and Russia that it would only accept an unconditional withdrawal by the Coalition from the country. The picture that Information Minister Sahaf was painting therefore was a reflection of what the government was hearing from its underlings not the ranting of a government apparatchik desperately trying to spin a positive story in the face of defeat. Almost to the end, Baghdad believed that it was actually winning the war.
Saddam on Iraqi TV, April 2003. Right up to the end of the war Saddam actually believed that Iraq was winning, because of the false reports his underlings were sending him out of fear of telling him the truth (Reuters)
Minister Sahaf seemed like a joke every time he appeared on TV proclaiming that the U.S. led Coalition was losing. He became something of a celebrity as a result, and there are websites to this day that archive his statements, and make fun of them. What was not known then was that Saddam Hussein actually believed that his forces were beating the Americans. When the U.S. and England invaded, all Baghdad heard was that waves of fearless Iraqis were not only holding their own against the Coalition, but pushing them into the desert. When Minister Sahaf said there were no U.S. forces in the capital, most in the government actually believed that. This was a result of the bubble that Saddam created around himself. The fear of being overthrown caused him to undermine his own military, and instill a reign of terror throughout the government in an attempt to defeat any plots that might be hatched against him. In turn, bearing bad news was not allowed out of fear of death. Saddam thus became a victim of his own survival tactics, and Minister Sahaf provided a look into this world more than anyone knew at the time.

SOURCES

Center for Individual Freedom, “The Collected Quotations of “Baghdad Bob,” Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf: The Iraqi Minister of Disinformation”

Gordon, Michael, Trainor, General Bernard, Cobra II: The Inside Story
of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, New York: Pantheon, 2006

Mohan, Geoffrey, and Perry, Tony, “Troops Reach Baghdad’s Airport,” Los Angeles Times, 4/3/03

Polk, William, Understanding Iraq, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2005

Woods, Kevin with Pease, Michael, Stout, Mark, Murray, Williamson, and Lacey, James, “A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership,” Iraqi Perspectives Project, 3/24/06

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