The avenging heir

Saladin was the good enemy. Appropriated by Saddam Hussein, the knightly sultan has become an emblem

In London, just past the House of Commons, stands Baron Carlo Marochetti's bronze statue of Richard the Lion-heart. The king on horseback, his sword held triumphantly aloft, has been there since 1861. In Damascus, there is now a statue of another hero of the crusading era. The bearded faces under their helmets seem to bear more than a chance resemblance. Richard's effigy was made by an Italian and Saladin's by an Arab, but both belong to a western tradition of heroic sculpture.

For centuries, the Saladin myth has been a largely European creation. But in Saddam Hussein's Iraq a new image of Saladin has been manufactured, so that the past securely buttresses the monolithic rule of a single all-powerful dictator. In the Soviet Union, during the Second World War a similar attempt was made to present Stalin as the natural and inevitable outcome of the nation's history. Ivan the Terrible, who was renowned as much for his patriotic zeal as his cruelty, was requisitioned as an incarnation of Stalin himself in his struggle against the power of Nazi Germany. The Soviet leader cast himself as a kind of super-tsar. Although the tradition of using history for propaganda purposes is not as established in the Arab world as Europe, Saddam has embraced the opportunities it offers.

The town of Tikrit on the banks of the Tigris claims two favourite sons. The first was Saladin, born there in 1137, and the second is Iraq's present ruler, born in 1937. It has been suggested that Saddam adjusted his birth date to make the coincidence more remarkable. Unsurprisingly, the president has identified himself with this 12th-century avatar; in the process, he has constructed a very different image of Saladin to the western model.

In the west, Saladin is the "good enemy". Over the centuries, few other Muslims have had such a benign image. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the sultan is placed in Limbo along with the other pre-Christian heroes such as Hector, Aeneas, Caesar and Brutus. But, even there, Saladin stands apart from them. He is considered more akin to a parfit gentil knyght than any hero of the ancient world.

While his great adversary, Richard the Lionheart, was admitted to be as cruel and savage as a Muslim Saracen, Saladin was portrayed as noble, sagacious and calm, like a model Christian monarch. Saddam's new Saladin is very different. The knightly sultan has all but vanished and reappeared as an emblem of implacable hostility to the west. He is the hero who recovered Jerusalem from the infidel; the man who waged a holy war and succeeded. So, too, the image suggests, will Saddam Hussein, his avenging heir. Like Saladin, the propaganda makes clear, he will throw the "new crusaders" and their Israeli "collaborators" out of the Holy Land.

The new legend is omnipresent. A widely circulated children's book published in Baghdad, called The Hero Saladin, begins traditionally enough but it quickly segues into "Saladin 2": Saddam "the Saladin of the Arabs and the Kurds". Rather as recent Turkish governments have denied the Kurds any separate identity (calling them "mountain Turks"), so the current Iraqi leader has obliterated the Kurds, both literally and figuratively. The original Saladin was, technically, a Kurd; today he is claimed as the quintessential Arab hero.

The joint image of Saladin and Saddam appears in many places in Iraq. It is painted on walls in Baghdad, and especially in Tikrit. On 13 February 1998, "Jerusalem Day" was declared and new Iraqi postage stamps appeared with Saddam and Saladin smiling side by side, reconquering Jerusalem. From their faces, you might assume they were brothers. With the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem in the background, and the Iraqi flag like a war banner in the foreground, the message is clear. No more is Saladin the parfit gentil knyght; now he is a kinsman of the man whom western leaders think of as "the beast of Baghdad". Iraqi dissidents spotted the shift long ago. Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress, says Saddam "wants to go down in history among the Arabs and Muslims as the modern-day Saladin". Now western commentators, following the writer Arnaud de Borchgrave, have discovered Saddam's "Saladin complex".

The Tikrit connection with Saladin was too valuable to ignore, but Saddam Hussein also uses other elements from history. He has a succession of guises. Each time he appears on a horse in the flowing dress of an Arab, he is in Saladin-mode. When he wears a suit, a trilby hat and carries a rifle, he is being modern. In uniform, he is both the commander-in-chief and the leader of the Ba'ath Party. Nor does this Arab secularist fail to use the familiar imagery of Islam. The Iraqi president has transmogrified into a mujahid, fighting in a holy war for the two holy sanctuaries of Jerusalem (the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques). Like Stalin, who exploited the Orthodox Church in Russia's patriotic battle against the Nazis, Saddam uses whatever emotive vocabulary works best.

Every aspect of the past presented by Saddam Hussein has a specific meaning. Rebuilding the ancient city of Babylon, and placing his great palace on the hillside above it, or naming his regiments after ancient Assyrian heroes such as Hammurabi or Nebuchadnezzar has a purpose. It reminds Iraqis of past glories and that their ruler is their best hope for future greatness.

Westerners see all this as evidence of Saddam's megalomania. What else could explain the rebuilding of Babylon with millions of bricks each bearing his own and Nebuchadnezzar's name? The relentless US pressure against Iraq eliminates everything that is not consistent with America's image of the country's leader. So when in January this year Washington's new Office of Global Communications published its Apparatus of Lies: Saddam's disinformation and propaganda (1990-2003), it consisted largely of tired old material and missed its stated objective to "consider the regime's words, deeds, and images".

Unfortunately, Saddam's hold on the people of Iraq does not rely on lies, oppression and torture alone. The Saladin connection and the Nebuchadnezzar trick are not that different from westerners summoning up images of Winston Churchill and Pearl Harbor to justify 21st-century decisions in terms of 20th-century precedent. It would be a mistake to think that Saddam's images are not equally as persuasive for his own target audience.

The Iraqi president's refashioning of the Saladin legend has certainly worked. His new mythology jettisons the gentle knight of history and emphasises a fact that has great appeal to the Arab world. The noble sultan did recover Jerusalem for the Muslims, and that's an image worth capturing in the 21st century.

Andrew Wheatcroft's Infidels: the conflict between Christendom and Islam (638-2002) will be published by Viking in May

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