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Share Our History: When Muhammad Ali Convinced Saddam Hussein To Free 15 American Hostages

The late Muhammad Ali made it his life’s work to be an outspoken humanitarian and that trait was on full display in November 1990, when he secured a meeting with Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.   Muhammad Ali went on what was dubbed a “goodwill tour” to Baghdad, in the hopes of meeting the dictator and securing the release of 15 Americans that were being held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait.

muhammad-ali-freed-hostages
Muhammad Ali With Hostages He Helped Free

Mr. Ali’s trip was highly criticized by then-President George H.W. Bush and his administration. In addition, The New York Times newspaper went so far as to question Ali’s ability to communicate due to his Parkinson’s disease, which he was suffering from for six-years at the time. The New York Times wrote:

“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.”

After being kept waiting for one-week, Ali finally received a call that Saddam Hussein would meet with him. Prior to meeting Mr. Hussein, Ali ran out of medication to control his Parkinson’s disease. According to his liaison from the US Embassy, Vernon Nored, Ali’s disease took such a toll on him without his medication, “He could barely get out of bed. He couldn’t stand up. And he couldn’t talk, because his voice wouldn’t go above a whisper.” Although going through his own struggle, Ali soldiered on like a true champion and took to the streets of Baghdad, visiting children in schools and praying in mosques. Vernon Nored recounted that “The Iraqis would ask him for autographs, want to stand and talk to him . . . Ali never, ever turned anybody down.”

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When it was time to finally meet Saddam Hussein, Mr. Nored was able to obtain some Parkinson’s medication from the Irish Hospital in Baghdad. The meeting between the two polarizing figures took place on November 29, 1990. During the meeting, Ali promised Saddam Hussein that he would bring America “an honest account” of Iraq. In exchange, Mr. Hussein promised that “I’m not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the US without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.” In the end, Muhammad Ali returned to America on December 2, 1990 with all 15 former hostages that were help captive by Saddam Hussein.

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