At first sight, Saddam Hussein's call on Tuesday to Iraqis to wage a jihad against the Anglo-American invaders seems odd. Besides being the President of Iraq, he is also the Secretary-General of the ruling Arab Baath (i.e. Renaissance) socialist party, a secular organization that has been denounced by extremist Islamists such as Osama bin Laden as apostate.
But then again this is roughly what Saddam had said on the eve of the first Gulf War. Addressing the Fourth Popular Islamic Conference in Baghdad, he described the impending armed conflict between Iraq and the US-led coalition as a battle between "believers and infidels".
Yet there is a difference between 1991 and now: the existence of the al-Qa'ida network and its leader Osama bin Laden who, though in hiding, issues statements on the situation in the Muslim world at crucial moments. In February he urged in an audiotape seen on al-Jazeera television that "Muslims as a whole, and in Iraq in particular, should carry out jihad against the oppressive offensive." He went on to clarify the ideology behind his call to arms. "The fighting should be in the name of God only, not in the name of national ideologies."
This approach is at variance with Saddam's. What he is trying to do is to meld Islam with Iraqi/Arab nationalism, thus broadening his appeal to two large, overlapping constituencies – one of them (Islam) diffuse and global, and the other (Iraqi nationalism) focused and national. This foretells a much wider and greater threat to the interests of America and Britain worldwide in the coming weeks and months, and already 4,000 volunteers from Arab countries are believed to have arrived in Baghdad to fight alongside Iraqis.
Saddam first used the combination of Islam and Iraqi/Arab nationalism effectively against his Muslim neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran, during their eight-year war in the 1980s. He started imitating the enemy by describing the Iraqi war dead as "martyrs", an Islamic concept.
Saddam sponsored the First Popular Islamic Conference in Baghdad in April 1983, attended by 280 clerics and pious laymen from 50 countries, and two years later came the Second Popular Islamic Conference in Baghdad, again inaugurated by Saddam. Siding with Iraq in the war, it described the Iranian rulers as "oppressive and cruel".
Saddam tried hard to project himself as a pious Muslim. He overcame his weakness for Black & White whisky and gave up alcohol altogether. During Ramadan (May-June) he decreed that officials should hold public fast-breaking banquets, thus creating a symbiosis between the Baathist regime and Islam.
Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam has initiated a program of building three monumental mosques in Baghdad to re-establish the city as the center of piety and stunning Islamic architecture. The Umm al-Maarik (mother of all battles) – meaning the 1991 Gulf War – mosque was inaugurated last year on 28 April, the 65th birthday of Saddam. Inside its inner sanctum are 650 pages of the Koran, said to be written in 50 pints of Saddam's blood, contributed over two years, mixed with ink and preservatives, and laid out page by page in a glass-walled display case.
The Iraqi leader is widely known to fancy himself as a modern-day Saladin, a leading figure of Islam, with a mission to liberate Jerusalem from the Zionists. His birthplace, the village of Auja near Tikrit, is also the home town of Saladin, who expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1169. Throughout his political career he has been interested in the fate of the Palestinians. During the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, he offered to vacate Kuwait if Israel would withdraw from the occupied Palestinian Territories, and his government has backed the Palestinian intifada in which Islamist Palestinians are active participants.
The war in Iraq has helped bring together these two as yet separate strands – Arab nationalism and militant Islam – in the Arab and Muslim world. That, in turn, will widen the gulf between the Christian West and Muslim countries, a gulf that will, as French President Jacques Chirac warned, be catastrophic. "It would end the international coalition against terrorism," he said in a TV interview, "and the first victors will be those who want a clash of civilizations, cultures and religions."
Alas, Chirac's words went unheeded. Now Westerners – especially Americans and Britons – must prepare to reap the whirlwind sown by George Bush and Tony Blair.
Dilip Hiro is the author of 'Iraq: A Report from the Inside' (Granta Books)
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd