That time Muhammed Ali rescued hostages from Saddam Hussein

On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait with little warning. During that time, Hussein prevented many foreigners in Iraq from leaving while also bringing foreigners captured in Kuwait to Iraq. The hostages were mostly citizens of Western countries critical of the Iraqi invasion and many worked at the Baghdad General Motors plant.

After the UN gave Hussein the January 16 deadline to pull out of Kuwait, 15 Americans were moved to strategic locations inside Iraq to be used as human shields in the event of retaliatory strikes from the multinational force that was growing larger by the day.

In October, Hussein released the foreign women and children held in Iraq. Many in the State Department feared the remaining hostages would be killed when Coalition forces engaged the Iraqis in Kuwait, either by friendly fire or by their Iraqi captors. That’s when the “Greatest of All Time” stepped in the international arena.

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Muhammed Ali was highly regarded in the Islamic world. One hundred and thirteen days into the hostage crisis, Ali came to Baghdad at the behest of a peace organization founded by Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General for President Lyndon B. Johnson. The group hoped to prevent a greater war, but Ali was more concerned with getting the U.S. hostages home.

Many were critical of Ali’s trip. The administration of George H.W. Bush worried it would legitimize Saddam’s invasion. the U.S. media accused Ali of trying to boost his own popularity, perhaps to win a Nobel Peace Prize. The New York Times claimed Ali was actually aiding Hussein and criticized his ability to communicate, reporting, “Surely the strangest hostage-release campaign of recent days has been the ‘goodwill’ tour of Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion … he has attended meeting after meeting in Baghdad despite his frequent inability to speak clearly.”

By 1990, Ali had been fighting Parkinson’s Disease for six years, suffering from tremors and a slurred speech. He had to use hand signals to communicate to his spokesman many times during his interactions in Iraq. He still managed to visit schools, talk to people on the streets, and pray in Baghdad’s mosques. Crowds flocked to him wherever he went and he never turned anyone away. It would be part of his promise to Saddam to trade hostages for an “honest account.”

He ran out of his Parkinson’s medication but stayed in the country until he could meet with the Iraqi dictator. He was bedridden for days at a time. His trip was far from a publicity stunt as “The Greatest” was suffering but refusing to leave until he could attempt to get the hostages released. The Irish Hospital in Baghdad replenished Ali’s medication just before Saddam Hussein agreed to meet with him.

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Ali sat as the Iraqi dictator praised himself for how well he’d treated American prisoners. Ali reiterated his promise to bring back to the U.S. an “honest account” of his visit to Iraq.

The American hostages met with Ali at his hotel in Baghdad that night and were repatriated on December 2, 1990 – after four months of captivity.

Ali with the 15 americans he helped return from Iraq in December 1990.

Ali with the 15 Americans he helped return from Iraq in December 1990.

“They don’t owe me nothing,” Ali said of the hostages in 1990.

Six weeks later, the U.S. and the multinational forces staging in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield launched Operation Desert Storm. Coalition forces liberated Kuwait from Iraqi troops in 100 hours.

Ali did not receive the Nobel Prize, but he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and a Liberty Medal in 2012.

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