The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the United States and the Middle East, 1979-2003 
by Steve Coll.
Allen Lane, 556 pp., £30, February, 978 0 241 68665 2
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Long before​ Bush and Blair invaded Iraq, many Iraqis suspected that foreign intelligence services were manipulating their country’s domestic affairs. Since the 1920s – when Gertrude Bell manoeuvred behind the scenes in the early days of the Iraqi state under the British mandate – otherwise inexplicable events were often attributed to the workings of ‘Abu Naji’, a quasi-mythical figure used as shorthand to refer to the meddling British, and later the Americans. As Steve Coll makes clear in The Achilles Trap, Saddam Hussein was even more suspicious than most. Reviewing Saddam’s diligently recorded private discussions with intimates, Coll notes that he ‘regularly steered the conversation around to the subject of conspiracies’, crediting both the British intelligence services and the CIA with a clear understanding of Iraq’s internal affairs. In Coll’s view, the credit was undeserved. The Americans continually misread Saddam, notably failing to anticipate his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 or to notice his secret disposal of his entire stock of weapons of mass destruction the following year – failures that ultimately contributed to the disaster of the invasion and occupation.

Coll’s book is full of arresting details about Saddam’s years as dictator of Iraq. From 1979, when he assumed the presidency, his authority rested primarily on the brutal repression of minorities such as the Kurds, combined with the generous disbursement of the country’s oil wealth to the rest of his subjects (before the 1991 Gulf War, the major problem facing Iraqi paediatricians was childhood obesity). Coll’s trawling of the documentary archive reveals a great deal about Saddam’s dealings with his lethally fractious family. His eldest son, Uday, was a particular thorn in his side: in 1988 Uday beat his father’s valet to death; seven years later he shot and severely wounded his uncle Watban.

Saddam was, according to his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, ‘so cruel you could not imagine’. Given that al-Majid – aka Chemical Ali – was himself a mass murderer, this was saying something. Yet Coll also shows that Saddam was more than just a tyrannical thug. He could be self-deprecatingly humorous, and was deeply read in Arab and foreign literature (Hemingway was a favourite). Once, catching a TV presenter in a grammatical error, he phoned the minister of culture to complain, decreeing a six-month suspension for the offender. His own literary efforts occupied an inordinate amount of his time – The Complete Writings of Saddam Hussein (2001) filled eighteen volumes. As his regime came under growing pressure in the 1990s, he increasingly immersed himself in fiction, writing four allegorical novels of enormous length, typically about a humble ruler beset by hostile powers. Even as US tanks approached Baghdad in April 2003, he was overseeing the publication, with a forty thousand copy print run, of his last novel, Get Out, Damned One!, whose plot hinged on fearsome resistance to foreign occupation. His first novel, Zabiba and the King, gave a telling clue to his approach to government: at one point, the heroine urges an Iraqi leader ‘to arrest all’ who had known about an assassination plot, ‘as well as all those who may have taken part’. A semi-autobiographical work, Men and the City, evoked the grim world of his rural upbringing in Tikrit, calling it ‘worse than the life of dogs’.

Still, he made it to high school and then law school in Baghdad, before being recruited at the age of twenty as an assassin in the service of the Baath Party, which espoused a secular ideology of woolly socialism combined with fierce Arab nationalism. In 1963, when Saddam was 25, the party overthrew the leftist regime of Abdul-Karim Qasim. The coup doubtless confirmed his sensitivity to foreign-influenced conspiracies. Coll leaves an open verdict on the widely rumoured role of the CIA in removing Qasim, who had governed with the backing of the then powerful Iraqi Communist Party, since the agency’s documents on the episode are still classified. However, Jim Critchfield, head of the CIA’s Near East Division in 1963, told me late in life that ‘we had every t crossed and every i dotted on that one. We regarded it as our best coup.’ After a rocky start, the Baath Party consolidated power, and Saddam rose rapidly through its ranks, displacing his cousin, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, as president in 1979. He immediately cemented his control with a bloody purge of Baathists deemed insufficiently loyal to his rule.

The following year, Saddam attacked Iran, sparking an eight-year war that killed at least half a million people. Ayatollah Khomeini’s recently installed theocratic government had inspired similarly militant aspirations in Iraq’s own Shi’ite religious hierarchy, clearly a threat to Saddam. He seemed to believe that Tehran’s forces, distracted by revolutionary chaos, would offer no serious resistance. But after initial setbacks the Iranians rallied and by 1982 were putting the Iraqi military under severe pressure. This generated serious concern in Washington, where the ayatollah’s regime was then, as now, considered the ultimate bête noire.

As Coll chronicles, the US, while professing neutrality in the war, began supplying Saddam with vital intelligence, especially satellite maps, through CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency officials posted to Baghdad. Coll is silent on the US’s role in fomenting this horrifyingly bloody conflict. The war turned out to have momentous consequences for Iraq, even leaving aside the mass slaughter: it effectively bankrupted the state, impelling Saddam to invade Kuwait in the hope of restoring his battered finances, thus setting off a chain of events that in the end destroyed not only his regime but Iraqi society itself.

It is therefore of interest whether Saddam received any endorsement from Washington before launching the war on Iran. There have long been rumours of American encouragement, but the absence of hard evidence has led at least one academic researcher, Hal Brands, to conclude that ‘the green light thesis has more basis in myth than in reality.’ Chas Freeman, a distinguished US diplomat, recently provided me with a clue as to what might really have happened. In January 1981, as the Carter administration was preparing to leave office, Freeman, who was at the time director for Chinese affairs at the State Department, was tasked with reviewing National Security Council files relating to China. Among the papers, he remembers coming across a ‘memcon’ summarising a meeting in late June 1980 – three months before the war began – between Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and a senior Iraqi diplomat. In the meeting Brzezinski clearly stated that America would be content with an Iraqi attack on Iran – a green light if ever there was one. Such a document would normally have been filed with papers relating to Middle Eastern affairs, but it had been misfiled with the China material (perhaps deliberately, Freeman suggested to me), and he handed the memcon over to a White House official. It was never seen again. ‘Probably shredded,’ Freeman said.

Washington was so anxious to assist Saddam in the war the US had encouraged that CIA emissaries posted to Iraq were authorised to deliver invaluable intelligence material without asking for any favours in return. High-level visitors from the US included Donald Rumsfeld, appointed special envoy to the Middle East in 1983. Rumsfeld’s visits to the region were not generally popular (the US ambassador in Damascus would invariably leave town whenever he came to stay, locking the drinks cabinet and taking the key with him). But Saddam’s coterie actually liked Rumsfeld ‘as a person’, a US diplomat recorded, deeming him ‘a good listener’ who made it clear that Saddam’s use of poison gas to repel the Iranians wouldn’t get in the way of harmonious relations with Washington. The budding friendship even survived the revelation in 1986 of Reagan’s covert arms shipments to Iran and passing on of military intelligence (in a bloody battle on the al-Faw peninsula in early 1986, both sides worked off satellite maps provided by the Americans). Exposure of these dealings will have reminded Saddam that the Americans were not to be trusted. But Washington came through when it counted, furnishing diplomatic cover for his heavy deployment of chemical weapons. In 1988, when Iran-backed Kurdish groups occupied the city of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan, Saddam responded by showering the city with poison gas, killing as many as five thousand civilians.

Coll suggests that the US response to the massacre was even-handed: the administration, he claims, ‘embraced flawed intelligence reports … that both Iraq and Iran had resorted to gas’. But in fact Washington made it perfectly clear whose side it was on. As Joost Hiltermann details in A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja (2007), within days of the attack, US diplomats around the world began publicising the lie that Halabjans had died from Iranian chemical weapons, thereby eliciting a Security Council resolution which didn’t explicitly condemn Iraq, but merely urged both sides to refrain from the use of chemical weapons. Encouraged by the absence of international opposition, Saddam proceeded to quell Kurdish rebellion with further gassing of the civilian population.

Once Iran had thrown in the towel in 1988, Saddam began laying plans to take over Kuwait, to which he owed billions of dollars in war loans. By this stage, Washington’s interest in the Middle East had waned, as decision-makers focused on the accelerating decline of the Soviet Union. Yet signs of Saddam’s aggressive intentions did attract the attention of some US envoys in the region. Freeman, who was now ambassador to Saudi Arabia, recalls attempting to alert Washington, but he was largely ignored. The ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie, vainly sought guidance on official policy regarding Saddam’s designs on his oil-rich neighbour, but was given none.

Saddam apparently took this lack of interest as a sign of US acquiescence. Years later, as Coll records, he complained to an American official: ‘If you didn’t want me to go in, why didn’t you tell me?’ When, following his conquest of Kuwait, it dawned on Washington that he was now in a position to help dictate the global price of oil, rapid action ensued with Operation Desert Storm. By March 1991, Saddam’s army had been soundly defeated and driven from Kuwait. The US then ordained an indefinite siege of the Iraqi economy, securing UN endorsement of comprehensive sanctions that were formally justified by the belated discovery of Saddam’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

George H.W. Bush had refrained from advancing into Iraq to put pressure on the regime, but two months after the ceasefire he signed a secret ‘finding’ enjoining the CIA to work for Saddam’s removal. Frank Anderson, head of the agency’s Near East and South Asia Division, accepted the directive with reluctance, scribbling ‘I don’t like this’ across the memo. He knew that there was little or no chance of subverting Saddam’s well-entrenched government, and that Bush’s order was little more than a pro forma gesture. As he reflected to me some years later, quoting the former CIA director Richard Helms, ‘covert action is frequently a substitute for a policy.’ Nevertheless, he set to work corralling opposition figures, especially the fraudster-banker Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi was selected by the CIA because, as Anderson frankly admitted to me, ‘he was weak,’ with no useful connections inside Iraq, making him easier to control.

At the same time, sanctions were proving to be a lethal weapon against the Iraqi population at large. By the summer of 1991, the middle classes, impoverished by rocketing inflation, were selling off their possessions to buy food, while plutocrats, including Uday Hussein, grew vastly rich from black market profiteering. Coll touches only briefly on the misery inflicted by the sanctioneers, though he pays attention to Saddam’s rake-offs from the Oil for Food programme instituted later in the 1990s, which permitted Iraq to export some oil. But as Denis Halliday, UN supervisor of aid distribution under Oil for Food, remarked on resigning his post in 1998 in protest at the ongoing sanctions, the blockade was destroying the underpinnings of Iraqi society as young people lost hope and sought relief through emigration or immersion in religious fundamentalism.

The sanctions were always publicly justified as a means to get Saddam to relinquish any and all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In fact, he had destroyed his entire arsenal of WMDs in 1991, but had done so in secret, keeping no record of their disposal. The secrecy was supremely ill-judged, making it difficult later to prove that he had no such weapons. A UN inspection force, Unscom, led by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekéus and partly manned by CIA undercover agents (with his acquiescence), combed the country for years in search of the non-existent WMD stockpiles. By the first few months of 1997, Ekéus had concluded there was nothing more to be found: ‘Iraq had completed the disarmament phase of the ceasefire agreement,’ he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2012. The way should have been clear for lifting the sanctions. But, as Ekéus went on to say,

the United States took a different view. In the spring of 1997, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright gave a speech at Georgetown University in which she stated that even if the weapons provisions under the ceasefire resolution were completed, the United States would not agree to lifting sanctions unless Saddam had been removed from power. With regime change now a stated US objective and the easing of economic sanctions off the table, Saddam lost his appetite for co-operation.

After subjecting the inspectors to increasing harassment, Saddam finally kicked them out. This, Ekéus suggested to me, was exactly what the administration hoped to achieve with Albright’s provocative statement. Finding an excuse not to lift sanctions protected Bill Clinton from Republican accusations that he was being soft on Saddam. ‘The Unscom inspectors,’ Clinton stated without a blush in February 1998, ‘believe that Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions … and the capacity to restart quickly its production programme and build many, many more weapons.’ Later that year, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, written by a congressional Republican staffer, Stephen Rademaker, with input from Ahmed Chalabi, who had by then fallen out with the CIA but had found new allies among neocons eager for an aggressive military policy in the Middle East. Passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, the law called for the US ‘to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq’, citing among other justifications Saddam’s expulsion of the weapons inspectors.

America’s path to war was already clearly marked by the time George W. Bush became president. The 9/11 attacks accelerated the pace. The Pentagon was still burning when, according to an aide’s notes, Rumsfeld, now defence secretary, instructed the acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, to find the ‘best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] @same time … not only U.B.L. [Osama bin Laden] Hard to get good case. Need to move swiftly – Near term target needs – Go massive – sweep it all up. Things related and not. Need to do so to get anything useful.’ From then until March 2003, Bush led his government and his obedient ally Blair inexorably towards war. Just as the White House had disregarded warnings that bin Laden was planning an attack in the United States, it now disregarded or suppressed all evidence that Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction. The CIA obligingly confirmed that the desired conclusions were correct. For his part, Saddam believed that the CIA knew full well his weapons store was empty – which meant he was the subject of yet another conspiracy. Experience had taught him that was usually the case, and he was right.

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Vol. 46 No. 14 · 18 July 2024

Andrew Cockburn describes the way the United States covered up its assistance to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, and blamed Iran for gassing thousands of Kurds in Halabja in 1988 (LRB, 4 July). Britain was at it, too, as I learned when reporting for the Guardian on the Scott Inquiry into the export of arms to Iraq, triggered by the collapse of the trial of three executives at the Matrix Churchill machine tool company. Unbeknown to the customs authorities who prosecuted the executives for breaching export controls, MI5 and MI6 had encouraged them to trade with Iraq and feed back intelligence about what Saddam was up to. British officials also initially blamed the Halabja gassing on Iran but later reluctantly acknowledged that Saddam had ordered the massacre. That did not stop Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary at the time, from drawing up a paper about ways to export more weapons to Saddam. He told his officials to keep it secret. ‘It could look very cynical,’ he said, ‘if, so soon after expressing outrage about the treatment of the Kurds, we adopt a more flexible approach to arms sales.’

Richard Norton-Taylor
London N10

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