Iraqi autocrat evokes Arab glories with monuments to himself
New York Times, via San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 15, 2002
John F. Burns, New York Times
Baghdad — For a glimpse into Saddam Hussein’s cast of mind as he weighs the threat of another war with the United States, there are few more revealing places to look than the Mother of All Battles Mosque, a vast new edifice of gleaming white limestone and blue mosaic that the Iraqi leader oversaw from blueprint to completion on Baghdad’s western outskirts.
First, the minarets.
The outer four, each 140 feet high, were built to resemble the barrels of Kalashnikov rifles, pointing skyward. The inner four, each 120 feet high, are in the form of Scud missiles of the kind Iraq fired at Israel in 1991 during the Mother of All Battles, known to Americans as the Persian Gulf War. These inner minarets are decorated with red, white and black Iraqi flags.
Inside a special sanctum, treated by the mosque’s custodian with the reverence due a holy of holies, there are 650 pages of the Koran — written, it is said, in Hussein’s blood. As the official legend has it, “Mr. President” donated 28 liters of his blood — about 50 pints — over two years, and a famous calligrapher, Abas al-Baghdadi, mixed it with ink and preservatives to produce the handsome calligraphy now laid out page by page in glass-walled display cases.
A reflecting pool that encircles the mosque is shaped like the map of the Arab world. At the far end, a blue mosaic plinth, or block, sits like an island in the clear water. The plinth is a reproduction of Hussein’s thumbprint, and atop is a stylized reproduction, in gold, of his Arabic initials.
In this, as in all else, no expense has been spared. Officials put the cost of the mosque, in a country where many families live in abject poverty on $10 or $15 a month, at $7.5 million.
Mosque-building — on a scale unseen since the days that the great Abbasid caliphs ruled the Arab world from Baghdad until the middle of the 13th century — has become Hussein’s grand obsession.
A few miles from the Mother of All Battles Mosque, two others are rising that will dwarf it. One five times the size, with many similar features in celebration of Hussein, is to be known as the Mosque of Saddam the Great. It is visible in skeleton form on the bulldozed plain that used to be Baghdad’s airport, and is due to be completed in 2015.
A mile or two beyond, in a gigantic cluster of domes that seem borrowed from the design book for Las Vegas, is the Al-Rahman Mosque, meaning “the most merciful,” heading for completion in 2004.
Part of the message the Iraqi leader is sending with his mosque-building is that he is the natural leader of an Arab world yearning for past glories under the Arab armies that spread Islam through much of the ancient world after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632. But the lesson encoded in the Mother of All Battles Mosque, or Umm al-Maarek, as it is called in Arabic, seems to be much narrower, and aimed like its Kalashnikov-and-Scud minarets at a more selected audience: the United States.
U.N. weapons inspectors now head out every morning with powers to search the secret laboratories and weapons-making plants that were at the heart of Hussein’s ambitions to turn Iraq into the Arab superpower. As a result, he has had to do something that he says outright, in almost every speech, he abhors: bow down before the power of the outside world, led by the United States.
On several occasions recently, Hussein has spoken of his concern that Iraqis — meaning himself, as the country’s absolute ruler — not be seen to be “weaklings” and “cowards.”
But along with this, there has been another message, and it is the one written in stone and marble at the new mosque: that Iraqis are natural warriors, that they search ceaselessly for what Hussein called recently “the great meanings inside themselves,” and that they are like coiled springs waiting for the moment of “anger and revolt” when they can avenge the wrongs done them by their enemies.
To Americans, and to many Arabs, it might seem chimerical that Hussein could present himself as a man who has brought Iraq glory in war.
Iraq’s 1980-88 war with Iran ended in a battlefield stalemate, no ground gained, with at least 500,000 people dead on each side. The 1991 Persian Gulf War, triggered by Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, ended after six weeks of bombing and less than 72 hours of land warfare.
But at the Mother of All Battles Mosque, the inescapable message is that Hussein wants Iraqis to think of the battle for Kuwait as a glorious chapter in their history, one they should be ready to relive if America once again chooses to launch its missiles and bombs at Iraq. Seen through this perspective, the Gulf War was a victory, not a defeat, and Iraqis should welcome a new chance to follow Hussein if the time comes to land a new punch on America’s nose.
What is hard to know, given the closed nature of Iraq under Hussein, is whether it is the failure of a leader who lives in a tightly protected seclusion to grasp the realities that press in keenly on others.
Although Hussein is said to have visited the mosque frequently during its construction, lending himself to the project as a kind of architect-in-chief, officials say that they have not seen him there since before the mosque opened last year on April 28, Hussein’s birthday.
But the mosque’s imam, the chief cleric, is pleased to tell reporters what he believes Hussein had in mind with the mosque.
“Well,” said Sheikh Thahir Ibrahim al-Shammari, “I am not, of course, a military man. I am not a man to speak of battles, won or lost. But the building of this mosque, and other mosques, what is that if not a victory? The resistance Iraqis have shown to 12 years of American aggression, what is that if not a victory? No, what you see here is decidedly a monument to victory, define that as you will.”