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THE CHAMP IN THE GULF
After a 10-day visit to Iraq, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali left that country for Jordan Sunday with 15 of the estimated 300 U.S. hostages held in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. Ali and the hostages, whose release he was credited with having arranged, left Amman on Monday bound for New York.
According to associates, Ali, who has been an immensely popular figure in the Moslem world since his conversion to Islam in 1964, made the trip in the company of his former manager Herbert Mohammed, public relations man Arthur Morrison and two members of the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, a group associated with former attorney general Ramsey Clark, who says that the trip's "basic purpose was peace and friendship."
The hostage release occurred as a result of a 50-minute meeting between Ali and Hussein in Baghdad on Nov. 27 during which the two men talked about the Persian Gulf's history. "There is a real fundamental-relationship between Hussein and Ali because they're both Muslims," says Lindsey Clennell, a British filmmaker who is making a documentary about Ali and was also in the delegation. " Ali wasn't taking a political, Iraqi-bashing stand. He was going basically to assert the need for peace in the gulf because Ali's against war." Said Ali after the meeting, "This is the land of the Garden of Eden, and the land where Abraham was born. How could it be bombed?"
This was not the first time Ali had undertaken a quasi-diplomatic mission. In 1980, at President Carter's request, he made a tour of five African nations in hopes of persuading them to join the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. That trip generated controversy when Ali acknowledged that had he known more about the U.S.'s failure to support the African nations' boycott of the '76 Olympics, he might not have undertaken the mission.
Despite the happy outcome of his Iraq visit, Ali was once again opening himself to second guessing. Was he playing into the hands of Hussein, whom the Bush Administration, among others, has accused of using the selective release of foreign hostages to divide the international alliance against Iraq? Of greater concern to some of Ali's other associates was whether Morrison's presence indicated that Ali has fallen too much under Morrison's sway. Morrison, who has offices in California and Florida, for some years has been involved in business deals with Ali, some of which have gone sour amid accusations that Morrison misrepresented the extent of the ex-champ's participation.
There were wire-service reports that during the trip Ali, who suffers from Parkinson's syndrome, sometimes had to communicate through the use of hand signals. "I think that was a little exaggerated," Morrison told SI in a telephone interview from Amman. " Ali has spoken many times. He chose a vow of silence out of respect for the [hostages] until he had met with Iraqi officials."
In California, Ali's wife, Lonnie, said last Saturday that when Ali left New York the previous Monday, he took with him only enough medication for five days, which meant that by the time he left Iraq on Sunday, he had been without medication for eight days. Said Lonnie, "That is why, when people see him on the news, his symptoms are exaggerated. From what I understand, he is very, very tired."
One of the released hostages, Harry Brill-Edwards, an engineer from Fort Lee, N.J., said, "He's quiet, but he's better than I expected. His speech is halting, but he's sharp. To make that long journey in his condition-he's just a tremendous human being."
Of the possibility that Ali was being manipulated by others, Clennell said it is typical of Ali not to worry about such matters: " Ali always has shared himself with everybody, unconditionally. That's what makes him so special."