Famed ex-information minister says he spoke in good faith

Saturday, June 28, 2003

CAIRO, Egypt -- The once-defiant former Iraqi information minister appeared humbled and evasive in a TV interview aired Friday, describing the fall of the Iraqi regime to coalition forces as an "earthquake" and refusing to blame Saddam Hussein for the war.

During the fighting, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf gained fame for his bombast and transparently false claims of Iraqi victories. However, in a 30-minute interview with Al-Arabiya satellite network he offered one-word answers, dodged queries, and said repeatedly that only history could judge what happened.

"If you want to say the truth, objectively and courageously, you must respect history," he said, adding it was "not the time yet" to determine that history.

He refused to blame Saddam or anyone else for the collapse of the Iraqi regime, saying the versions of events require "research and an in-depth look in order to come up with a composed answer."

Al-Sahhaf also avoided blaming Saddam for turning down offers of exile from friendly states to avert war, saying it was a matter between states.

"What happened was an earthquake -- a really big earthquake," he said.

"It was very painful. I am not revealing a secret if I said I felt pain when I saw U.S. tanks in Baghdad," he said.

In a segment of the interview released Thursday, he said he had turned himself in to coalition forces but was set free. "Through some friends, I went to the Americans," he said. "I was interrogated about a number of subjects related to my job. After that, I was released."

Al-Sahhaf is not on the list of the 55 most wanted Iraqi officials.

His appearances on Arab television Thursday -- in brief clips shown on Dubai-based Al-Arabiya and in a five-minute interview on Abu Dhabi television -- were his first return to the public eye since the collapse of Saddam's regime.

Al-Sahhaf had been a regular sight on TV before and during the U.S.-led war, sporting military garb and a beret with dark hair peeking out. He boasted of nonexistent Iraqi military dominance and hurled insults at coalition forces and their leaders.

His outlandish claims and insults during the war bemused fellow Arabs and made al-Sahhaf a notorious figure in the West, where dozens of Web sites, T-shirts, and dolls ridiculed him.

One Web site, Baghdadbobs.com, even advertises al-Sahhaf hot sauce: The former information minister's photo and the quote "God will roast your stomachs in hell" are on jar. And last month, the London-based Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation released "Baghdad Bob," an uncensored DVD compilation of al-Sahhaf's most memorable remarks.

He disappeared the day Baghdad fell to coalition forces on April 9, and reports have said he was hiding in a relative's home in Baghdad, fearing revenge from angry Iraqis.

In the interviews, he wore civilian clothes, his thinning hair was white, and his feisty air had vanished.

Sahhaf insisted on answering most questions with "yes" or "no," but said he would write everything he knew and has experienced in the future. He added that he was giving up work as politician and would devote he time now to writing a book.

He rejected the idea of seeking asylum abroad, saying he would remain in Iraq.

Sahhaf said he was not aware if Saddam was dead or alive, had no comment about recent attacks on coalition forces, and would say little of the last days of the regime.

He also refused to say whether videos showing Saddam in the last days of the war had been pre-taped. "History will tell," he said.

In his interview Thursday with Abu Dhabi television, he said he had had little contact with the military in the last few days of the regime, but insisted that he had been convinced of what he had told the international media.

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