Did Saddam mimic Saladin?

The weird ease with which the Iraqi army and regime fell last year, combined with the stubbornness of the subsequent insurgency, has occasioned lively debate in national security circles. Here's one hypothesis: The Iraqi dictator, taking his cue from Islamic history, deliberately lured the coalition into Iraq. Realizing that his enfeebled army couldn't stand against the U.S.—led coalition in conventional terms, he feigned defeat, ordering his henchmen to arm themselves and carry on the struggle by unconventional means.

A protracted war, reckoned Saddam, would wear down America's will to fight, allowing him to win politically despite being thrashed on the battlefield. Rather than go down fighting, the regime melted away and, perhaps in concert with foreign terrorists, commenced the insurgency that has bedeviled the pacification effort ever since.

Fanciful? In reality, such a strategy would be fully in keeping with the Muslim way of war. Ever since the Crusades, Islamic commanders have favored using light forces to harry more heavily armed Western armies. Muslim armies would often feign retreat, enticing their enemies into pursuing them. Having wearied their foes, they would envelop them and counterattack at an auspicious moment. Steeped in conventional war, the United States needs to come to terms with this distinctively Eastern brand of warfare.

There's ample reason to believe that Saddam knew about traditional Muslim strategies. Throughout the 1990s, Saddam chafed under the Desert Storm ceasefire terms, especially the UN—imposed sanctions and weapons inspections. In an attempt to slip these bonds, he sought to rally the Arab peoples to the Iraqi banner. He cast about for a symbol that would appeal to Arabs' memories of past glory.

He hit upon Saladin, the gallant 12th—century Kurdish general who had evicted Christian forces from Jerusalem and later fought armies led by Richard the Lion—Hearted to a standstill.

Rhetoric and political imagery linking the 20th Century despot with the 12th Century hero were ubiquitous. In Tikrit, the family seat of both men, a statue of a mounted, mailed Hussein conjured up memories of Saladin. So did similarly garbed statues adorning the dictator's Republican Palaces. A book published by an official press styled Saddam "Saladin II," while postage stamps showed the two men side—by—side.

Why Saladin? Two reasons stand out. First, the Kurdish champion had been the most powerful potentate of his day, uniting much of the Arab world under his leadership. Second, he had conquered Jerusalem, setting himself apart from other Arab heroes of antiquity. Saladin thus fit nicely into Saddam's diplomacy, which for years had been premised on real and threatened attacks on Israel.

But Saddam Hussein may also have taken his cue from Saladin in military matters. A master tactician, Saladin was skilled at using light cavalrymen to harass, tire out, and ultimately overcome armored Western knights. The feigned retreat was part of his battlefield lexicon. Indeed, as a young man, Saladin had distinguished himself by leading a feigned retreat and a victorious counterattack at the Battle of Ashmunein.

In 1191, during the Third Crusade, Saladin attempted the same feat against an army led by Richard the Lion—Hearted, near the coastal town of Arsuf. Schooled in Muslim tactics, the wily King Richard refused to take the bait. In a rare display of discipline, the Christian horsemen remained on the field of battle, allowing the battered Muslim army to take flight. There was no foolhardy pursuit.

What of Saddam? The Iraqi dictator was famously contemptuous of America's staying power in wartime, largely because——he believed——its leadership was vulnerable to premature war—weariness among the electorate. Not the physical burden of heavy arms and armor but political weakness, in the form of dissension among the American people and their elites, would eventually tire out the United States. It would quit the campaign, as it had in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia.

A prolonged insurgency would sap America's will, allowing Saddam's regime to prevail politically. It would regain power despite battlefield defeat.

If the speculation presented here is true, then, Iraq's Baathist regime replicated Saladin's strategy on a grand scale, ensnaring the U.S.—led coalition in a protracted guerrilla war which, if Saddam calculated correctly, the West lacked the stomach to win. The Iraqi tyrant seems to have erred in this regard, if last week's presidential election is any guide. A majority of Americans declined to turn President George W. Bush out of office over his handling of the Iraq war.

Even so, the United States could encounter similar strategies in the war on terror. If Saddam followed Saladin's lead, and if future antagonists do so, the U.S. military should follow that of King Richard. It should decline to fight on enemy terms. Honing its proficiency in counterinsurgent strategy, police duty, and postwar reconstruction would be a good start.

James R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Senior Research Associate, Center for International Trade and Security School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia