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Bush, Saddam turning to God for victory

Calls for fasting and prayers in US and angry cries of jihad in Iraq are giving Iraq war a dangerous religious undertones, analysts say.

world Updated: Mar 31, 2003 09:42 IST

Calls for fasting and prayers in the United States and angry cries of jihad in Iraq are giving the US-led war aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein dangerous religious undertones, analysts say.

"O Iraqis, fight as God ordered you to do," the Iraqi president said in an address to the nation on March 24, underscoring the growing place of Islam in the battle for survival of his secular Arab nationalist regime.

"O Arabs, O believers across the world, O enemies of evil, God is on your side," he said. "Rely on God and the soldiers of the Merciful on our land will be granted victory."

Saddam usually begins his speeches with verses from the Koran.

His archnemesis, US President George W Bush, a born-again Christian, regularly peppers his presidential speeches with religious language and almost always ends them with a solemn "God Bless America".

And last week, the US Congress passed a resolution calling on Bush to order a nationwide day of prayer for the country in its latest hour of need.

Religion is also present on both sides of the battlefield.

In Baghdad's sleepless nights of shelling, the voices of muezzins rise from the hundreds of mosques across the city, invoking God and offering comfort to beleaguered residents as the bombs fall around them.

Iraq also pledged Sunday that thousands of Arab volunteers were ready to die in "martyr operations," or suicide attacks, following in the footsteps of a kamikaze Iraqi officer who killed four US soldiers in southern Iraq on Saturday.

Journalists embedded with the coalition have reported that US soldiers in Iraq had been asked to pray for Bush that so that "God's peace be your (his) guide."

The September 11, 2001 attacks reaffirmed the importance of religion within the Bush administration.

When Bush termed the US campaign against terror a "crusade", he triggered outrage in the Muslim world, which associates the word with the wars waged by Christian Europe to capture Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.

His "Axis of Evil" phrase, used last year to club together Iraq, Iran and North Korea as a band of weapons proliferators, was also inspired by his faith.

Marek Halter, a French writer of Polish and Jewish origin, said the war in Iraq was giving impetus to "an extremely dangerous" phenomenon.

"So far, we had a secular dictator, Saddam Hussein. But Bush is pushing him to a situation where he has to make calls for jihad, and we are finding ourselves in the middle of a war of religion," Halter said from Paris.

Italian radical party parliamentarian and former EU commissioner Emma Bonino, who settled in Cairo three months ago to learn Arabic, says Saddam's religious references are "tactics" to gain popular support.

"The same goes for his reference to Palestine," she said.

Egyptian analyst Diaa Rashwan says the Iraqi strongman is following in the footsteps of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, the late president of Egypt, who is considered the greatest hero of pan-Arabism.

Despite repressing the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser appealed to religion in the fight against the British-French-Israeli invasion following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, and after Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war with Israel.

"He put the Islamists in jail but kept some around, and appealed for help from Al-Azhar," the world's leading Sunni Muslim authority established in Cairo, Rashwan said.

First Published: Mar 31, 2003 09:42 IST