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Iraq: War Brings Unique Fame For 'Comical Ali'

Since U.S. forces took control of Baghdad there's been no sight of Saddam Hussein or his top officials. But one of them, at least, continues to have a thriving career -- as a figure of fun. He is of course the former information minister, Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, who gained fame by claiming coalition forces would be slaughtered -- while U.S. tanks were just meters away. His defiant denials of the obvious have now earned him a cult following, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 18 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, as U.S. troops closed in on Baghdad's international airport, Iraq's information minister appeared at his daily press conference in an upbeat mood.

He said the report of the Americans' advance was "completely unbased, that's not true...[laughs] Saddam Airport...No, this is silly."

It's pronouncements like these that earned al-Sahhaf fame during the U.S.-led war in Iraq. His endless optimism and denial of the obvious earned him the nickname "Comical Ali" -- a twist on "Chemical Ali," the nickname of the man believed to have ordered the 1988 gassing of the Kurds.

On 8 April, when U.S. tanks were just across the river in Baghdad, al-Sahhaf was as optimistic as ever. "We will slaughter them all, those invaders, their tombs will be here in Iraq," he said.

To the dismay of his many fans, he's not been seen since Baghdad fell. But his fame lives on -- and he's been earning money for some quick-thinking entrepreneurs.

One company is offering a talking "Disinformation Minister" doll featuring some of al-Sahhaf's choicest quotes. The online auctioneers, eBay, feature al-Sahhaf mugs and recorded compilations of his finest performances.

The website puts him at the scene of various historic battles like Waterloo, where he insists everything is going well for the losing side.

Elizabeth Ryan works for Rivals Digital Media, which has been selling T-shirts with al-Sahhaf's face alongside the caption "We are in control."

"We've sold over 5,000 of that one, actually," she said. "It's interesting that it went global as soon as all the press interest started. It was in quite a lot of the U.K. national press and we've had interest from CNN in New York and a couple of South African radio stations and even the Indian press and also France. So it's kind of gone all over the place. Sky News and the BBC also bought some for their news teams as a bit of a joke."

"The Observer," a London-based daily, claims to have tracked down perhaps al-Sahhaf's biggest fan -- his son Osama. He said his dad's a "good man" and "a very friendly guy." But how nice can a man be who did public relations for Saddam Hussein's regime?

Al-Sahhaf is not on the U.S. list of the regime's 55 most-wanted men, and is not thought to have been directly involved in any atrocities.

But al-Sahhaf's co-workers in Iraqi broadcasting in the 1960s had reason enough to avoid the man. Kamran al-Karadaghi of Radio Free Iraq was working at Iraqi radio at the time.

"He used to walk with this stick and he used it sometimes on people if he didn't like something," he said. "Then when he became the general director he used to beat a lot of people with it. Sometimes even some artists, for example. I remember I used to work at the radio at the time in the Russian service. We would sometimes hear people screaming in the courtyard and then we'd look through the windows and see al-Sahhaf chasing somebody and beating them with a stick."

One of al-Sahhaf's victims later ended up as culture minister -- while al-Sahhaf became foreign minister.

Iranian newspapers carried reports this week that al-Sahhaf had committed suicide. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, said today those reports are unconfirmed. And he said coalition troops are in no hurry to find al-Sahhaf.

If al-Sahhaf does surface at some point, he could have a bright career ahead of him. Suggestions so far include spokesman for a dodgy company -- or a standup comedian.