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INSPIRING: How Mohammad Ali secured the release of 15 US hostages in Iraq.

In 1990, Legendary Boxer and Humanitarian, Mohammad Ali saved the lives of 15 U.S hostages in Iraq by going there and negotiate with Saddam Hussein by himself in the run-up to the Gulf War: ignoring warnings from the government and his family.

As with much in Ali’s life, his mission was misconstrued and criticized. President George H.W. Bush did not approve. “I basically believe these people are playing into the propaganda game that Iraq is holding here,” said Joseph Wilson, then the top American diplomat in Baghdad. “These people traveling to Iraq are making a serious mistake.”

Even The New York Times criticized Ali, suggesting that he was just another egomaniacal celebrity out of his depth.

At that point, Ali was 48 years old and had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for six years.

Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, three years after retiring. By 1985, he had a new mission: He devoted his life to humanitarian aims, especially in bridging divides between the West and the Muslim world.

Ali refused to be cowed. “I’m the king of the world!” he said. “I’m pretty! I’m a bad man! I shook up the world!”

Firstly In 1985, Ali traveled to Lebanon in an attempt to free 40 American hostages. His mission was deemed a failure, although someone claiming to be with the Islamic Jihad told Western news outlets that American hostage Jeremy Levin, who reportedly escaped, was released “after the intervention and insistence of a noted American Islamic personality.”

In August 1990, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saddam took thousands of foreigners hostage. After the United Nations passed a resolution demanding that Iraq pull out of Kuwait, Saddam still had 15 American men, using them as human shields by holding them in buildings America was likely to bomb.

Some of the men had worked at the GM plant in Baghdad. All were civilians.

As recounted in the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “Ali: The Mission,” America’s most famous Muslim went to Iraq. He landed on Nov. 23, 1990, Day 113 of the crisis.

“It was well-announced to the Iraqis that Muhammad Ali, world champion, world-renowned hero, is now in Baghdad,” said Vernon Nored, who was Ali’s liaison from the US Embassy.

Everywhere he went, Ali was swarmed. “The Iraqis would ask him for autographs, want to stand and talk to him . . . Ali never, ever turned anybody down.”

Ali leaves Amman enroute to Baghdad for planned talks with Saddam Hussein in 1990. AP

The remaining hostages had no idea Ali was there — they only knew war was imminent. As Saddam kept Ali waiting for days, the fighter took to the streets, visiting children in schools and praying in mosques. “We hope and pray there is not a war,” he told the press, which followed him everywhere. “And with the little authority from the fame that I have, I’ll show the real side of Iraq.”

Ali had been in Baghdad for one week, with no word from Saddam, when the unthinkable happened: Ali ran out of his Parkinson’s medication.

Ali’s meeting with Saddam on Nov. 29, 1990, was open to the media. Ali sat patiently while Saddam praised himself for treating the hostages so well. Once he sensed an opening, Ali promised Saddam that he’d bring America “an honest account” of Iraq.

Saddam Hussein. AP

“I’m not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the US,” Saddam replied, “without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.”

Ali got all 15. Once released, the men were filmed going into Ali’s modest hotel room, where an exhausted Ali sat on the foot of his bed. One by one, the former hostages thanked him. An emaciated older man named George Charchalis lightly touched Ali’s shoulder and said, “He’s our guy.”

Muhammad Ali (center) and the 15 Americans that were rescued in Baghdad, Iraq.AP

On Dec. 2, 1990, Ali and the hostages flew out of Baghdad, headed for JFK. The men remained overwhelmed.

“You know, I thanked him,” said former hostage Bobby Anderson. “And he said, ‘Go home,’ be with my family . . . what a great guy.”

Muhammad Ali is thanked by former hostage Harry Brill-Edwards after returning from Iraq.AP

Just weeks later, on Jan. 6, 1991, the United States began bombing Iraq. Ali himself was still dogged by criticism that his mission was one of self-aggrandizement, that he was just in search of more publicity.

Muhammad Ali (L) leaving Rasheed Hotel with Iraqi officials.

The old Ali roared back.

“I do need publicity, but not for what I do for good! I need publicity for my book, I need publicity for my fights, I need publicity for my movie — but not for helping people,” he said. “Then it’s no longer sincere.”

A Man Very Aware Of His Beliefs and Ideals.He was more plain-spoken in challenging white America to look at the black experience, especially as it related to his sport. “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up,” he said.


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