In March of 2003, Saddam's Minister of Information was everybody's favorite inadvertent comedian. Sporting a kicky black beret and delightfully bombastic lexicon, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf appeared on TV daily to predict American failure and deny the Baghdad invasion--sometimes even as U.S. tanks appeared behind him. "He's great," President George W. Bush said of Sahaf, admitting that he occasionally interrupted meetings to watch Sahaf's briefings. "Someone accused us of hiring him and putting him there. He was a classic."
Sahaf became the subject of T-shirts, mugs, adoring websites, a pop song, and an action figure. Besides adding levity to news cycles otherwise filled with fuzzy green explosions, Sahaf represented everything that made Iraq's invasion seem not quite like a real war. Wars are serious, and this guy was adorable. Even if you opposed the Iraq invasion, you had to admit it's hard to respect a government whose official mouthpiece told a reporter, "Shock and awe? It seems that we are the awe on them. They are suffering from the shock and awe, okay?"
"My information was correct, but my interpretations were not," he explained. But in retrospect, the opposite seems truer.
Sahaf stuck to his post--and his story--until the day before Baghdad fell. Then he surrendered to American forces, was interrogated and promptly released, suggesting a lowly spot on the Ba'ath party totem pole. He surfaced in Abu Dhabi in July of 2003, gave a couple of interviews, and settled into obscurity.
"My information was correct, but my interpretations were not," he explained.
But in retrospect, the opposite seems truer. Sahaf had bad information, sure, but several of his more ludicrous predictions have since come true--some in the ways he meant, and, more chillingly, some in ways no one (else) could have foreseen.
Sahaf's nickname, "Baghdad Bob," now denotes someone who confidently declares what everyone else can see is false--someone so wrong, it's funny. But when read beside the eventual cost of America's decade in Iraq, "Baghdad Bob" isn't so funny anymore.
"The crook Rumsfeld said yesterday that they are hunting mass destruction weapons in Baghdad and Tikrit, and yesterday I replied to that cheap lie."
"I assure you that those villains will recognize, will discover in appropriate time in the future how stupid they are and how they are pretending things which have never taken place."
As a 2012 CIA study concluded definitively, Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction. Nor did Iraq have 18 mobile laboratories for making anthrax and botulism, as Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed before the United Nations in February 2003, nor had Saddam Hussein recently tried to buy large quantities of uranium from Africa, as President Bush asserted in his 2003 State of the Union address. A decade of war was based on things that had never taken place.
"They are trying to say that the Iraqi is easy to capture, in order to deceive the world that it is a picnic... One day, they [will] start facing bitter facts."
"The decisive battle is throughout Iraq. They do not know in what mud they are wading."
In 2002, Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, wrote in the Washington Post, "I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. Let me give simple, responsible reasons: (1) It was a cakewalk last time; (2) they've become much weaker; (3) we've become much stronger; and (4) now we're playing for keeps."
Wars are serious, and this guy was adorable.
Adelman was right that beating Hussein's military power would be easy-ish, though it took longer than George Bush Sr.'s 100-hour incursion in 1991. What Adelman didn't realize--and Sahaf did--was that occupation, not invasion, would be the bitter pill. Result: not a picnic.
"How can you lay siege to a whole country? ...We are in our country, among our kith and kin. ...Faltering forces of infidels cannot just enter a country of 26 million people and lay besiege to them! They are the ones who will find themselves under siege."
"Are they not going to find themselves besieged by the people of the countryside which they have to cross in order to reach Baghdad? Civilians will be busy. The grassroots of the Ba'ath Party will be busy attacking them.
He wasn't just right that Iraqis would reject the American invasion. He was also right about how that rejection would manifest itself.
"The simple fact is this: they are foreigners inside a country which has rejected them. Therefore, these foreigners, wherever they go or travel, they will be rained down with bullets from everyone. Attacks by members of the resistance will only go up."
Sahaf wasn't just right about the fact that Iraqis would reject American invasion. He was right about how. As predicted, troops were most vulnerable when in transit, especially from "the people of the countryside," thanks to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Of the more than 6,600 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost exactly as many were killed by IEDs as by firefights. "After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan costing more than $1 trillion, U.S. troops continue to die and be maimed by a weapon that can be cobbled together with spare parts costing less than $30," journalist William Levesque wrote in the Tampa Bay Times in 2012.
And the warning that resistance attacks would "only go up"? Well, they came down eventually--about five years later. But in 2003, the year "major combat operations" officially began and ended in Iraq, 486 American servicemen and women died there. By the time the last U.S. tanks rolled out of Iraq in 2011, the grassroots resistance Sahaf predicted had taken 4,474 American lives.
"This stooge, Blair... Fantastic, this man, really. I think the British nation have never been faced with a tragedy like this fellow."
"Blair, you are a war criminal. You should be tried because you told the British public lies."
Blair's international stature certainly declined after his decision to enter the war.
In August of last year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu pulled out of a conference on leadership after he learned former British Prime Minister Tony Blair would be attending. "The immorality of the United States and Great Britain's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, has destabilized and polarized the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history," Tutu wrote in a piece for The Observer explaining his decision.
"The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad."
In 2003, this was probably Sahaf's most quoted line. It was so conveniently ludicrous, so patently untrue, that commentators didn't have to do any research or devote any column inches to disproving it.
A decade later, nobody jokes about military suicide. The Department of Veteran Affairs recently published the most comprehensive study of veteran suicides ever conducted, revealing that about 22 American vets committed suicide every day in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available. That's up from 18 per day in 2008.
So Sahaf was actually slightly wrong on this one. The United States really loses their servicemen and women to suicide not by the hundreds, but by the thousands. And not at the gates of Baghdad, but at home.