Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Two men, two missions

By Staff writer of / February 26, 2003

Both men hate the United States. Both see themselves as crusaders. And both have a proven desire to destroy what stands in their way.

Skip to next paragraph

But Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden do have their differences. Mr. Hussein orders servants. Mr. bin Laden serves the Islamic order. Hussein's portrait saturates Iraqi life. Bin Laden has become the invisible man.

But many Americans, however, perceive the Al Qaeda leader and Iraqi dictator as partners in terror. A recent Knight Ridder survey showed that 45 percent of those polled believe that "some" or "most" of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis. In fact, 15 of the 19 were Saudis.

And when Al-Jazeera recently aired a new audiotape believed to be bin Laden, the US government was quick to argue that it proves a link between two men exists. "This is the nightmare that people have warned about, linking up Iraq with Al Qaeda," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.

As the US continues to press its case against these two men, US policymakers must identify and understand the differences between them, says Roxanne Euben, a political science professor at Wellesley College. The more they are lumped together, she says, "the more we risk bringing about the collaboration we most fear, thereby making it a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The story of each man's path to power illuminates the values behind their missions.

Path to power

Hussein was born in the same village as Saladin, the 12th century Muslim warrior who overthrew Western Crusaders at Jerusalem. He was given the name "Saddam," which translates to "he who confronts."

It is a fitting namesake.

Reportedly frustrated with his Sunni Muslim family's impoverished condition and his stepfather's cruel treatment, Hussein left home at age 10 to live with his uncle, Khairullah Tulfah, who later became governor of Baghdad. Mr. Tulfah hated Britain for its post-WWI rule of Iraq. He even wrote a pamphlet Hussein later republished titled, "Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies."

Before he turned 20, Hussein joined the Baath Party, a small political group that sought to redress the Arab downfall under European colonialism by creating a single Arab socialist state. Hussein rose through the ranks, serving as assassin - he botched an attempt to kill Iraq's prime minister in 1959 - and then as head of a torture center.

Baathist Party secret police forces ensured a stable, loyal leadership - dissidents were killed on the spot - and Hussein made his way to the party's forefront in 1979. Tulfah never enjoyed his nephew's position because Hussein had him ousted.

In the strange world of cold war politics, Western powers found Hussein useful. But during the ramp-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein's latent anti-Western sentiments emerged in raw, religious tones. "Saddam Hussein began to use a lot of religious imagery and rhetoric primarily as a kind of political ploy," says Wake Forest religious professor Charles Kimball.

Hussein branded the coming battle as the "mother of all battles." He rounded up a few hundred religious leaders and forced them to declare the coming confrontation a "jihad," or holy war. "Basically, if they wanted to see the sun shine the next morning, that's what they were commissioned to do," says Kimball.

This mother of all battles gave birth to humiliating defeat, decade-long sanctions, and ethnic fighting within Iraq. But it also opened a new chapter in Near East politics, and accelerated a radical Muslim agenda.

For Hussein and bin Laden, the Gulf conflict clarified their missions. And it provided common ground: shared hatred of perceived American hubris.