Alija Izetbegovic, 78; Led Bosnia Through War

Times Staff Writer

Alija Izetbegovic, a devout Muslim whose religion and politics landed him in Yugoslav jails but who went on to lead the Bosnian people through a cataclysmic war and eventually into independence, died Sunday in a Sarajevo hospital. He was 78.

Izetbegovic, who suffered from chronic heart disease, was admitted to the hospital Sept. 10 with broken bones and bruises from a fall. His condition deteriorated and became critical Friday when doctors were unable to stop the bleeding in his left lung, the hospital said.

He was in many ways the father of today’s Bosnia, proclaiming its sovereignty from Yugoslavia in 1992 before the Yugoslav federation collapsed, austerely waging a largely defensive and losing war, and finally serving in the new country’s first postwar, three-member presidency. But his enemies questioned his skill and attacked his motives, suspicious that he harbored desires to install an Islamic state in the Balkans.

A dour, somber man, Izetbegovic made no secret of the importance to him of his Muslim faith. Yet he also said repeatedly that he favored a Bosnia that was both multiethnic and democratic, something his ethnic rivals did not even begin to value.


Citing his bad health, Izetbegovic stepped down from Bosnia’s political leadership in October 2000, five years after the U.S.-brokered Dayton accord had ended the war. He was the last of the three wartime leaders to leave power: Weeks earlier, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had been ousted in a popular uprising in Belgrade, and several months before that, Croatia’s nationalist President Franjo Tudjman had died in Zagreb.

Bosnia plunged into war after Izetbegovic declared independence. Serbs led by Radovan Karadzic, now a fugitive war-crimes suspect, revolted and, backed by the Yugoslav army, launched a village-by-village campaign of burning, looting and pillage.

More than a quarter million Bosnians were killed in a conflict that put the term “ethnic cleansing” into the global lexicon and engendered the bloodiest atrocities in Europe since World War II. Nearly 2 million Bosnians were driven from their homes.

As the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was surrounded by besieging Bosnian Serb forces, battered by enemy artillery and its residents picked off by snipers, Izetbegovic captured the world’s sympathy by running the government from sandbagged buildings pocked and shaken by mortar and gunfire.


Unlike Milosevic and Tudjman, Izetbegovic was never a member of the Yugoslav Communist Party. Whereas Milosevic and Tudjman traded communism for nationalism and shifted with the winds of public opinion over the years, Izetbegovic remained true throughout his life to Islamic-inspired political activism.

A man of courage and conviction, but lacking in diplomatic sophistication, Izetbegovic seemed genuinely pained as he sat next to the men who had become his archenemies, Milosevic and Tudjman, at the final Dayton ceremony in November 1995, where he signed an unsatisfactory armistice and shook their hands.

Former special Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton accord, has described Izetbegovic as a strange and remarkable figure.

“He saw politics as a perpetual struggle,” Holbrooke recounted in his memoir, “To End a War.” “He had probably never thought seriously about what it might mean to run a real country in peacetime....


“He was a devout Muslim, although not the Bosnian ayatollah that his enemies portrayed. But although he paid lip service to the principles of a multiethnic state, he was not the democrat that some supporters in the West saw. He reminded me a bit of Mao Tse-tung and other radical Chinese communist leaders -- good at revolution, poor at governance.”

Informed of Izetbegovic’s death Sunday, Holbrooke told The Times, “When I saw him in the hospital three weeks ago, he said that he would die with his heart at peace, knowing that the Dayton agreement had given his country a future.

“Bosnia would not exist today if not for Alija Izetbegovic,” Holbrooke added. “It was his tenacity, his determination and his courage that kept it going under the relentless bombardment of the Serbs. But by the time we reached Dayton in November 1995, Milosevic knew he had lost most of what he sought. Milosevic even said that because Izetbegovic refused to abandon Sarajevo during the siege, he had won the right to a united city.”

After the war, Izetbegovic came under harsh criticism for having allowed Islamic fundamentalist fighters, who flocked to Bosnia during the conflict, to remain in the country and serve as a springboard for international jihad. Izetbegovic refused repeated requests from American officials to rein in those moujahedeen. He argued that they had come to Bosnia’s rescue when no one else would. Many, after the war, married Bosnian women and took Bosnian nationality. And although most Bosnian Muslims are modern and Westernized, a handful of those moujahedeen were later implicated in terrorism elsewhere.


Izetbegovic’s life mirrored the turbulent history of the Balkans and his Bosnian homeland. His family lived in Belgrade until 1868, the year that most Muslims fled the Serbian-dominated metropolitan city; the historic Islamic presence would eventually be all but erased.

Izetbegovic was born in the northern Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac, on the banks of the Sava and Bosnian rivers, in 1925, one of five children. Two years after his birth and his father’s bankruptcy, the family moved to Sarajevo. In 1992, Bosanski Samac would see some of the war’s most brutal “ethnic cleansing.”

Izetbegovic’s grandfather, for whom he was named, served as mayor of Bosanski Samac in the early part of the century and saved the lives of about 40 Serbs after Gavrilo Princip, an ethnic Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering World War I and a crackdown on Serbs by Austro-Hungarian authorities. Thirty years later, in 1944, a young Izetbegovic was attempting to dodge the World War II draft and was hiding out in northern Bosnia when he was captured by notorious Serbian guerrillas known as Chetniks. He would probably have been a goner -- but they remembered the deeds of his grandfather, and he was spared.

“My grandfather had saved 40 Serbs ... and because of that I was freed,” Izetbegovic told the Slobodna Bosna magazine in a 1996 interview.


From the early days of his youth, Izetbegovic was a member of Young Muslims, an organization advocating a purer form of Islam that was outlawed after World War II by the new communist regime, led by Josip Broz Tito. In 1946, Izetbegovic was arrested and put in jail for three years, at least in part for statements against the Soviet Union, with which Tito, at the time, was aligned.

After his release in 1949, Izetbegovic began studying, and he graduated with a law degree from Sarajevo University in 1956. His most famous writing, which came back to haunt him in later years, was the 1973 “Islamic Declaration.” Another work, published in the U.S. in 1984, was similarly controversial: “Islam Between East and West.”

Both spoke of the importance of Islam and the need to serve God. His Serb and Croat enemies maintain that the writings proved Izetbegovic’s fundamentalist intentions aimed at establishing an Islamic state in the Balkans. In 1983, Izetbegovic, along with a group of Muslim intellectuals, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Often in cells with dozens of men, he contracted bronchitis that would plague him for the rest of his life.

He was pardoned in 1989 and set free. The next year, he founded Bosnia’s first nationalist ethnic-based political party, known as the Democratic Action Party, SDA. Bosnian Serbs and Croats would soon follow suit, forming their own ethnic-based parties. Each would become the political faces of ethnic warfare.


“It is true that all my activities, since my youth, have been inspired by the idea of Islam; they will be in the future, too,” Izetbegovic was quoted as saying during a 1993 ceremony in Saudi Arabia bestowing on him an award for service to Islam.

“I was born and belong to a people that have been living at a big border for centuries, at a border separating worlds, and we belong to both. To the West with our minds and ways of thinking and to the East with our souls and feelings.”

One of his most controversial statements came on the eve of war, a delicate time across the Balkans. “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I would not sacrifice sovereignty,” he told the Bosnian parliament on Feb. 27, 1991. Many Serbs took the statement as a cry for war.

It was that kind of public stance that caused many of Izetbegovic’s critics to question his wisdom and political skill. But few questioned his determination to fight for the freedom of his people.


Izetbegovic is survived by his wife; two daughters; and his son Bakir, a businessman and politician.