Alija Izetbegovic

Bosnian Muslim leader who led his country to independence
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The Independent Online

Alija Izetbegovic, lawyer and politician: born Bosanski Samac, Yugoslavia 8 August 1925; President, Presidency of Bosnia 1990-96, rotating President 1996-2000; married Halida Repovac (one son, two daughters); died Sarajevo 19 October 2003.

As Bosnia and Herzegovina descended in the spring of 1992 into Europe's bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, it fell - paradoxically - to Alija Izetbegovic, a devout Muslim, twice imprisoned for Islamic activities, to lead the fight to preserve the polyethnic and multi-cultural character of his country.

Throughout the war that ended in December 1995, Izetbegovic was head of Bosnia's collective Presidency - the institution that brought together Bosnia's Muslim leaders with the minority of Bosnian Serb and Croat politicians who were prepared to fight for the fledgling polyethnic state against the onslaught of Bosnian Serb, and later also Bosnian Croat, separatists. After the war he stayed on within the revamped Presidency for the rest of the decade stamping his authority on Bosnia's peacetime politics.

Initially, the personal challenge facing Izetbegovic was all the greater as he had not held any public office until just over a year before war broke out. Hesitant, and even indecisive, Izetbegovic was the least well prepared of the leaders of the six Yugoslav republics to deal with the chaos arising from the collapse of their federation.

Yet the man who moved from the status of jailed dissident to the Presidency of Bosnia in a matter of two years was one of the key figures who managed to preserve the concept - and something of the reality - of Bosnia as a sovereign, polyethnic state within its internationally recognised borders. Izetbegovic's other major achievement was to help ensure the survival of the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosnjaks as they became known after 1993, as a distinct people sharing their own state with Bosnian Serbs and Croats. The alternative would have been to become a diaspora community reduced through ethnic cleansing to the role of an, at best, barely tolerated minority.

His achievements turned Izetbegovic into a symbol of co-operation between the ethnic groups. Inside Bosnia and its neighbourhood, the majority of Bosnjaks regarded him as a hero for protecting their Muslim identity. But, for many Serbs and Croats, he was an Islamist ideologue; and, in the absence of political acts that would have provided evidence for this, they quoted from some of his earlier writings which were, in part, open to that kind of interpretation.

Izetbegovic's success in preserving a Bosnian entity was all the more remarkable as it was achieved against the determined efforts of Bosnia's Serb and Croat separatists to dismember the country. The struggle was waged against overwhelming odds. The diehard Serb and Croat nationalists not only had a huge superiority in military hardware but they also enjoyed the backing, respectively of President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia and President Franjo Tudjman's Croatia.

Yet the price that had to be paid was enormous in terms of deaths, ethnic cleansing and the destruction of property: and the large majority of the victims were Bosnjak civilians.

The devastation caused by the war was the more painful because the peace agreement itself was deeply disappointing to those who had fought for a united and fully integrated Bosnian state. The Dayton accords of December 1995, which Izetbegovic reluctantly signed, created a union of two semi-independent entities: the Federation of Bosnjaks and Croats and the Serb Republic. The best Izetbegovic could say in support of the deal was that "this may not be a just peace, but it is more just than a continuation of the war".

Yet, if Dayton signalled the exhaustion of all sides in the war, the unsatisfactory nature of the deal also raised the question of whether a more experienced or pragmatic politician than Izetbegovic might have secured a similar agreement at an earlier stage - and with fewer victims.

The balance of military power which favoured Izetbegovic's adversaries would suggest that not much more could have been done by anyone else in his position. Yet Izetbegovic's evasiveness and prevarication - though understandable given that he was trying to minimise the human suffering without conceding victory to his hardline nationalist enemies - made him at times a difficult negotiating partner. International mediators were often frustrated by his tactics of playing for time, in the hope that the continuing atrocities carried out primarily by the Bosnian Serb forces would eventually lead to foreign military intervention.

But intervention on a meaningful scale did not come for nearly three and a half years - until the late summer of 1995. Izetbegovic felt betrayed by the international community. It had first recognised Bosnia, and then refused to give its government military support, or even to exempt it from the United Nations arms embargo that had been imposed on the whole of the former Yugoslavia before the fighting in Bosnia erupted. He singled out UN officials and commanders of its Unprofor (United Nations Protection Force) peacekeepers for failing to do more to protect Bosnia: "When I think of them," he was to say after the war, "I wonder how we ever managed to survive."

Born in 1925 in Bosanski Samac in northern Bosnia, Izetbegovic was brought up in Sarajevo, where he studied law. As a teenager he joined the Young Muslims, a religious- political organisation that promoted the unity of the Muslim world. As Marshal Tito's Communist authorities consolidated their control over Yugoslavia after the Second World War, Izetbegovic got caught up in the clamp-down on religious activists. He was only 21 when he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for pan-Islamic activity.

After his release Izetbegovic completed his studies and worked as a lawyer. Meanwhile he continued to work for the moral and religious regeneration of the Muslim community. It was a difficult task, not just because of Tito's intense drive against religion but also because of the broader background of Bosnia's European, modernising traditions stretching back to Austro-Hungarian control which started in the 1870s after five centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule.

In 1970 Izetbegovic circulated what was to become his best-known work, The Islamic Declaration. It was a manifesto that called for a return to true Islamic values. But its most controversial aspects involved the suggestion that there could be no co-existence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions, as well as Izetbegovioc's insistence on the creation of an Islamic order in countries where Muslims represented a majority. That would have excluded Bosnia, where Muslims, though the largest community, did not have an overall majority.

The Declaration and Izetbegovic's later work Islam between East and West (1982), an exploration of the unique position of Bosnia's Muslims, earned him a 14-year sentence at a trial of Muslim intellectuals in 1983. He was released as part of an amnesty in 1988. By then Yugoslavia was in a state of ferment. Milosevic had just emerged as Serbia's leader, and as he was tightening his grip on Serbia with the help of populist nationalism, Yugoslavia's other republics began to take fright. In each republic the ruling Communists either had to adopt nationalist ideology or risk defeat at the hands of the emerging new parties.

Izetbegovic founded the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) in May 1990 with the purpose of rallying Bosnia's Muslims and promoting their interests. The establishment of the SDA and the opinions expressed in The Islamic Declaration, often taken out of context, fuelled the polemics of hardline Bosnian Serb and Croat nationalists who claimed before and during the war that Izetbegovic was bent on establishing a Muslim-dominated state with a fundamentalist Islamic orientation.

But whatever Izetbegovic, the Muslim intellectual, may have written earlier, his actions as a politician were at key points directed at working together with other parties across the ethnic divide. He quickly emerged on centre-stage when in December 1990 the SDA won the largest number of votes in Bosnia's first post-Communist elections. Izetbegovic came second in the race for the two Presidency seats reserved for Muslims. However, the winner, Fikret Abdic, the popular boss of the Agrokomerc food production enterprise, was busy rebuilding his company after its collapse in the late 1980s, and agreed that the Presidency's rotating chairmanship should go to Izetbegovic.

Initially, the SDA and its Bosnian Serb and Croat nationalist counterparts, worked together in a coalition. Izetbegovic took a cautious middle-of-the-road approach to the conflict in the Yugoslav federation that pitted a centralist Serbia against independence-seeking Slovenia and Croatia. But, when the latter two declared independence in June 1991, Izetbegovic concluded that to remain within the old federation would lead to a polyethnic Bosnia, and in particular its Muslims, coming under the domination of Milosevic's increasingly intolerant Serbia.

Izetbegovic began to move towards independence - a course that was bitterly opposed by the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and most of his colleagues. When Bosnia approached the European Union at the end of 1991 to request recognition, the EU responded by requiring Sarajevo to hold a referendum. Boycotted by most Bosnian Serbs, the vote went, by a large majority, in favour of independence.

On 6 April 1992 the EU and the United States recognised Bosnia - a move that triggered the Bosnian Serbs' military onslaught against the new state. Just two days earlier Izetbegovic had assured viewers in a television address that they could "sleep peacefully, there will be no war". His declaration seemed at the time to be an extraordinary mixture of naïvety and wishful thinking. Izetbegovic later justified his remarks by saying that he had been trying to calm people down in the hope that this would help avert an all-out war.

As a war leader Izetbegovic displayed considerable personal courage. He was a symbol of resistance during the Bosnian Serbs' siege of Sarajevo, working in the heavily sandbagged government building in the centre of the city. Early in the war he was briefly detained by the Yugoslav army on his return from a foreign trip and was kept, in effect, a hostage to secure the safe withdrawal of the army garrison from the centre of Sarajevo.

As a negotiator, prevarication and delay were Izetbegovic's chief weapons. Lord Owen and other mediators remarked on how he would openly agonise about whether to accept a compromise deal. At times he would go along with a proposal, only to turn his back on it later - as in the case of the blueprint for Bosnia's future put forward by the Portuguese EU mediator, Jose Cutileiro, at the outset of the war.

As a public speaker and personality, Izetbegovic was neither charismatic nor particularly articulate. But in Haris Silajdzic, his Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister, and Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's UN representative, he picked people with some of the best presentational skills to spread his message around the world. If the much-sought Nato intervention was long in coming, it was not due to lack of effort by Bosnia's representatives. It had much more to do with the disagreement between the US, which was willing to intervene against the Bosnian Serbs, and Britain and France, who feared that their UN peacekeepers on the ground would become the targets of revenge attacks.

Throughout the war Izetbegovic was in an unenviable position. At one stage the government side controlled barely 15 per cent of Bosnia's territory while the rest was in the hands of the Bosnian Serb or Croat separatists. With Milosevic in Belgrade and Tudjman in Zagreb hoping to carve up Bosnia, Izetbegovic used to describe himself as "a little Churchill, squeezed between two Hitlers".

In the end, Izetbegovic not only survived the war but also outlived - politically - his great adversaries. Tudjman died in 1999 and Milosevic was ousted from power in early October 2000, before he was transferred to The Hague for a trial on war-crimes charges. By contrast, Izetbegovic started to take a dignified and gradual exit from politics when he stepped down from his post as head of the Presidency - just one week after Milosevic's fall. He stayed on as the SDA's President for a year, and continued as its honorary Chairman thereafter.

Izetbegovic's resignation from the Presidency was due to ill-health: his heart attacks and other ailments were, at least in part, the legacy of his earlier bouts of imprisonment. But he was also increasingly at odds with Bosnia's foreign partners. They were critical of him for failing to rein in the SDA's corrupt officials who were benefiting from the diversion of international reconstruction aid. And they viewed Izetbegovic himself as symbolising on the Bosnjak side the continuing national divisions that dogged attempts to reintegrate post-war Bosnia.

Izetbegovic gained wider respect as a war leader than as a peacetime politician. The biggest enigma about his life was how he reconciled his overlapping - and at times conflicting - loyalties as a devout Muslim, as an advocate of his Muslim-Bosnjak community and as a committed supporter of a polyethnic Bosnia. At the personal level there is no doubt that his faith came first. In his political career he was a determined champion of the Muslims' interests. But during the crucial period of the war he did his best to preserve Bosnia's polyethnic traditions.

Gabriel Partos

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