Hussein´s Obsession: An Empire of Mosques (NY TIMES) By JOHN F. BURNS BAGHDAD, Iraq 12/15/02)
NEW YORK TIMES
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AGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 14 — 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, newly constructed 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, look like the Scud missiles that Iraq fired at Israel
in 1991 during the Mother of All Battles, known to Americans as the
Persian Gulf war. At their peak, these inner minarets are decorated
with red, white and black Iraqi flags.
There is more.
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 Mr. 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 writing
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 sits like an
island in the clear water. The plinth is a reproduction of Mr.
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
Mosque-building — on a scale, Iraqi officials say, that no Arab
leader has undertaken since the days of the great Abbasid caliphs who
ruled the Arab world from Baghdad until the middle of the 13th
century — has become Mr. Hussein´s grand obsession. He has set out to
make Baghdad the undisputed center of Islamic architecture, as it was
under the Abbasids, and the only thing that has stopped him from
building even bigger, the officials say, is a concern not to outstrip
the Islamic holy places in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.
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 Mr. 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, Saddam Hussein, is the natural leader of an Arab
world yearning for past glories under the banner of Islam that
fluttered atop the Arab armies that conquered much of the ancient
world after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. But the lesson
encoded in the Mother of All Battles Mosque, or Umm al-Mahare, 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
With United Nations weapons inspectors now heading out every morning
with powers to search the secret laboratories and weapons-making
plants that were at the heart of Mr. Hussein´s ambitions to turn Iraq
into the Arab superpower, the Iraqi leader has had to do something
that he says outright, in almost every speech, he abhors having had
to do: bow down before the power of the outside world, led by the
United States. On several occasions recently, the Iraqi leader 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 Mother of All Battles Mosque:
That Iraqis are natural warriors, that they search ceaselessly for
what Mr. Hussein called last week "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. In short, that they are ready for war, as Mr.
Hussein said at a cabinet meeting this week, when he told his
generals "that your heads will remain high with honor, God willing,
and your enemy will be defeated."
To Americans, and to many Arabs, it might seem chimerical that Mr.
Hussein could present himself as a man who has brought Iraq glory in
Iraq´s eight-year war with Iran in the 1980´s ended in a battlefield
stalemate, no ground gained, with at least 500,000 Iraqis, and as
many Iranians, dead. The Persian Gulf war, which was triggered by Mr.
Hussein´s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, ended after six weeks of American
bombing and less than 72 hours of land warfare, and the abiding
image, for Americans, of Iraqi soldiers scrambling out of desert
bunkers with their hands raised in surrender to American troops.
But at the Mother of All Battles Mosque, the inescapable message is
that Mr. Hussein wants Iraqis to think of the battle for Kuwait as a
glorious chapter in their history, one they should be ready to re-
live if America once again chooses to launch its missiles and bombs
and tanks at Iraq. Seen through this perspective, the gulf war was a
victory, not a defeat, for Iraq, and its people should welcome a new
chance to follow Mr. Hussein if the time comes to land a new punch on
Many who know Iraq, and the United States, and can make even a
layman´s estimate of their relative military strengths, would regard
this as illusionism of a piece with Iraq´s persistence in holding
onto Kuwait in 1990 under American threats, and boasting of certain
victory, until the denouement. What is harder to say, given the
closed nature of Iraq under Mr. Hussein, is whether it is an
illusionism like Winston Churchill´s in 1940, baying at the Nazi
armies in France while knowing that Britain´s land forces were in no
shape to repel an invasion, or whether it is something much grimmer
for Iraq, the failure of a leader who lives in a tightly protected
seclusion to grasp the realities that press in keenly on others.
Although Mr. Hussein is said to have visited the mosque frequently
during its construction, lending himself to the project as a kind of
architect-in-chief, in the way that Mao in China and Kim Il Sung in
North Korea used to do with every hospital and bridge and dam,
officials at the mosque say that they have not seen him there since
before the mosque opened last year on April 28, Mr. Hussein´s
birthday. The absence of "Mr. President" on the day of the opening
was a striking lacuna they attribute to the heavy demands on the
Iraqi leader´s time. "Perhaps he was too busy," they say.
But the imam at the mosque, the chief cleric, is pleased to tell
reporters what he believes Mr. Hussein had in mind with the mosque.
What he says comes as no surprise.
Was the mosque a symbol of Iraq´s defeat of America in the gulf war,
he was asked.
"Exactly, you have divined it well," said Sheik Thahir Ibrahim al-
Shammari, his face shining with a look of something like beatitude.
But was this not stretching a point a little, he was asked, given the
fact that Iraqi troops fled the battlefield in Kuwait so fast.
The imam smiled. He had heard the questions before, and fielding them
was to him about as easy as batting away a child´s softball pitches.
"Well," he said, coming back at his questioner with the cleric´s
equivalent of a sucker punch, "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."
One thing the mosque´s keepers appear to have learned from meeting
reporters is that the architectural flourishes — the Kalashnikov
minarets and the Scud-like towers beside them — may be a little over
the top for the Western taste. Accordingly, the presentation has
Where once visitors were told what seems obvious — how the elegant
cylinders of the inner minarets slim to an aerodynamic peak, like a
ballistic missile tapering at the nose cone — they are now assured
that no such references were ever in the architects´ minds.
But there is no such reticence about the features that memorialize
Mr. Hussein. Sheik Shammari was happy to run through the details:
The outer minarets 43 meters in height, for the 43 days of American
bombing at the start of the gulf war. Then inner minarets, 37 meters
in height, for the year 1937; numbering 4, for the fourth month,
April; and 28 water jets in the pool beneath the minarets, for the
28th day — all in all, the 37-4-28, for April 28, 1937, Mr. Hussein´s
The mosque is one of the few buildings in Iraq where there is no
portrait of Mr. Hussein. But more striking than that, there is no
memorial, within the mosque, for the 100,000 Iraqis the government
says died from American bombing during the gulf war. Few independent
experts who have studied the 1991 bombing campaign consider the
figure remotely credible, but, in any case, the war´s Iraqi victims
Outside, in the mosque´s spacious grounds, there is a memorial to the
dead of the Iran-Iraq war, but that, too, seems more a paean to
victory than an acknowledgment of suffering. Alongside heroic, Soviet-
style figures of ordinary men, women and children carved into the
white limestone, there is a quotation from Mr. Hussein´s message on
the occasion of the cease-fire with Iran in August 1988, describing
the moment as "a great day, a day of days."
The seeming lack of a human dimension was underscored on Friday, the
Muslim day of prayer, by the fact that the mosque was all but
deserted at the height of the day, apparently because ordinary Iraqis
prefer to gather in large numbers at the lovely old mosques in the
center of Baghdad.
Sheik Shammari said that 2,500 people had attended the noonday
prayers, at which he had called for "God´s mercy" on Palestinian
suicide bombers — a favorite topic of Mr. Hussein, who has promised
cash payments of $25,000 to the family of every Palestinian blowing
up himself, and Israelis. But mainly, he said, he had spoken of the
certainty of Iraq´s victory over the United States.
"I told them, ´Our enemy has very advanced weapons, and in this they
are stronger than we are,´ " he said. "But I also said, ´But we also
have weapons that they do not have. We have our faith, Islam, and we
have our great leader-president, Saddam Hussein. These are weapons
far stronger than anything our enemy has.´ "
Incongruously, for a cleric of a mosque that seems political to the
peak of its dome, the sheik said he preferred not to speak of
But then he thought it over, and could not resist.
There was a president, he said, without mentioning any country, who
was "steeped in the blood" of Iraqis, and who had a "crazy, paranoid"
vision of the world that was driving him on to war, regardless of the
sufferings it would bring.
"If we want to be merciful, we would call him a Satan," he said. "He
has absolutely no sense of reality, none at all."
He was speaking of President Bush. (Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company 12/15/02)
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