Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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March 11, 2003

Saddam Delivers Islamist Message to Prepare for His Possible Disappearance During Conflict

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Analyst, GIS. Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein, in his Islamic New Year message, appeared to set the stage for his “disappearance” at the onset of the anticipated US-led war against Iraq, by setting the message in a parallel with the Hejira of the Prophet.

On March 5, 2003, Saddam Hussein delivered a message to the Iraqi people on the advent of the Islamic New Year. Significantly, the speech was read on Iraqi TV and radio by an announcer, and not Saddam himself as has been customary for such speeches. His latest message was an Islamist speech of the kind Osama bin Laden would have delivered. Therefore, the key to understanding Saddam’s message is in the Islamic metaphors which Saddam used.

The timing and occasion of Pres. Saddam’s speech were not accidental. The Islamic New Year is celebrated on the anniversary (by lunar calendar) of Prophet Mohammed’s forced migration — the Hejira —  from Mecca to Medina. It was in Medina that Mohammed built his forces and consolidated his base, and then returned triumphantly to Mecca, thus starting the ascent of Islam.

In the first part of his March 5, 2003, message, Pres.Saddam delved on the relevance of the lessons to be learned from Mohammed's experience. He emphasized that present-day Iraqis “also feel the determination of early believers ... not to relinquish their faith” not only in word but also in action, for, like their historic predecessors, “they had rejected despotism and pruned the path of faith as their own course”. Mohammed’s original followers, Saddam declared, “fixed landmarks for all coming generation until faith and Islam have assumed their current status”. Saddam stressed that this legacy is “what early believers wished for us and aspired for so that we can be on the right infallible path, the path of faith with all the implying sincerity, zeal and the requirements of jihad”.

Saddam then went to great length articulating the lessons of Mohammed's Hejira. Prophet Mohammed and his followers “left behind their homes, families and possessions”. They were forced into leaving Mecca “haunted by the devil and tyranny”, which included the people of Mecca who had succumbed to “the influential tyrants and those who were driven away by their superiority in number”. Mohammed elected to migrate not only in order to save his followers, Saddam stressed, but primarily in order to “to establish a capital for true Muslims and a center for their faith”. He found this refuge in Medina.

In Medina, Saddam explained, Mohammed consolidated “the umbrella of the glorious fraternity between Muhajirin [Migrants from Mecca] and Ansar [supporters from Medina]” who confronted the local Jewish tribes, and through whose exploits “the early steps of building the army of jihad were taken”. These early experiences defined the quintessence of Islamic struggles. “The great values of faith, the ability to hold out and be determined to maintain jihad which were infused in the souls of believers, all combined with the momentum of the right to seek a return to their homes which they had left, to their families and beloved ones,” Saddam explained, shifting to contemporary issues. “Sincere Iraqis, men and women, brave Palestinians and believers everywhere, when we recall all that within this very brief account, we may ask: What is the despot of this age after?”

Saddam quickly answered the question, unifying in the process the Iraqi cause with the Palestinian. He addressed his response to the “patient, jihadist, sincere Iraqis, Palestinians and all jihadits in our [Muslim] Nation”. He highlighted all the sacrifices and suffering endured by both Iraqi and Palestinian individuals as the foundations of the resurgence of the Muslim nation. Saddam emphasized that both Iraqis and Palestinians “are victorious by virtue of faith, through the course of justice against injustice, virtue against vice, sincerity against betrayal and the fight of the mercenaries and aggressors. The despot, along with his models, no matter how tyrant he grows, is defeated”. Saddam drew direct parallels between the trials and ultimate triumph of Mohammed’s followers and the contemporary Arabs. “Just as early believers who struggled and put up with harm to win God’s reward,” Saddam declared, “you would reap the gains of your patience, faith, God's satisfaction and what you expect God to reward Believers with. It is victory over your enemy.”


Ultimately, the great quandary this speech of Saddam fails to resolve is the significance of his emphasis on the legacy of the Hejira. Saddam’s speech was delivered at the commemoration of Mohammed’s original Hejira and thus the mention of the subject was in place. However, these are not ordinary times. Iraq is on the eve of a US invasion explicitly aimed to wipe out Saddam Hussein and his Administration. Hence, there is reason to read more into Saddam’s historical-religious allegory. In his message to the Iraqi people, Saddam Hussein may have instructed the Iraqis that his personal disappearance in the aftermath of the US invasion, as well as any discernable setback of his Ba’ath Administration, would really be the initial phases of a modern-day Hejira — an escape and exile under adverse conditions — that, like Prophet Mohammed’s original Hejira, would be the precursor of a historic return and triumph over the contemporary “despots” and “tyrants”.