The Achilles Trap: Steve Coll on how the US fatally failed to read Saddam

<span>Iraqis wave portraits of Saddam Hussein during a rally in Baghdad, in February 1998.</span><span>Photograph: Enric Marti/AP</span>
Iraqis wave portraits of Saddam Hussein during a rally in Baghdad, in February 1998.Photograph: Enric Marti/AP

By the time the US and UK were preparing to invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein was spending much of his time hidden away writing novels and obsessing over Arabic grammar, according to a new book based on previously unpublished transcripts and documents from his regime.

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Very much like Richard Nixon, Saddam taped many conversations with his officials. The tapes were seized by US forces after the 2003 invasion, shipped to Washington to be transcribed and translated, but not made public.

“There are hundreds of hours, if not more than 1,000, of Saddam talking to his comrades and generals, which have never seen the light of day,” Steve Coll said. “They have been reviewed by government historians and they have been indexed, but we don’t really know what’s on them.”

Coll, an American journalist and author, fought a legal battle to gain access to a tranche of the material which is now the basis for his book, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the CIA, and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq.

It is a tale of mutual misunderstanding, often told from a western perspective but now, for the first time in depth, from Saddam’s idiosyncratic point of view. The Iraqi dictator believed the CIA to be all-knowing and all-powerful, so assumed George W Bush’s administration knew very well Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) left after Saddam ordered their destruction in the 1990s.

The threatening rhetoric coming out of Washington was just propaganda, Saddam concluded, as he kept up a pretense of possessing WMD to deter his enemies, Iran in particular.

“He was trying to signal his pride and his fear of humiliation and of vulnerability to both internal attacks and potentially external attacks,” Coll said.

In apparent moments of doubt, Saddam would occasionally buttonhole ministers to ask if they had hidden any remnants of the nuclear, chemical or biological programmes he started.

“Do we have any programmes going on that I don’t know about?” he demanded to know from his deputy prime minister in 1998. He was reassured that everything had been dismantled.

In his 60s, Saddam had started to slow down. He was still capable of random brutality but less focused on war. Increasingly, he saw his primary legacy as a man of letters. He imagined himself the guardian of literary Arabic, once having a hapless television newsreader suspended for six months for making a grammatical error.

Ever fearful of assassination, Saddam sought refuge in villas outside Baghdad, his whereabouts known to only a trusted handful, and worked on four novels, written by hand with meticulous calligraphy and delivered a few pages at a time to his press secretary, Ali Abdullah Salman, for copyediting, a task performed as tentatively and tactfully as possible.

The first novel, Zabiba and the King, was published in 2000. It is set in ancient Babylon, where a married king falls in love with a young, beautiful and wise woman, Zabiba. It is a polemical allegory in which Zabiba is Iraq and the king is Saddam, who learns from his lover how to be a better monarch. It was published anonymously but every Iraqi knew who the writer was. It was distributed liberally by the presidential palace, turned into a musical by the national theatre and adapted for a multi-part television series.

The novel was clunky but at least accessible and just about coherent, unlike the three books that followed.

“The later novels are completely unreadable and basically works of propaganda,” Coll said.

There was little awareness in Washington of Saddam’s evolution into a deluded author, in part because there was virtually no contact between the US and Iraq. Baghdad, once a valuable ally against Iran, had become untouchable after Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait sparked the first Gulf war, and after a supposed Iraqi plot to kill the elder George Bush on a post-presidential visit to Kuwait three years later.

The evidence for the assassination plot is thin, argues Coll, who thinks it was most likely cobbled together by Kuwaiti intelligence as a way to frame Saddam.

“I lean toward the idea that this was some kind of Kuwaiti propaganda operation because the alternative that it really was a serious assassination attempt is just hard to derive from the available evidence,” he said. The would-be plotters presented by the Kuwaitis were low-level whisky smugglers, who Coll describes as “the most incompetent hapless assassins you could imagine”.

The plot became an article of faith in Washington, however, and one of the reasons contact was taboo. In 1996, Bill Clinton complained to Tony Blair that he could not pick up the phone and call the “sonofabitch” in Baghdad.

“That is such a heavy-laden decision in America,” Clinton told the future British prime minister. “I can’t do that.”

Coll found no record of any official US-Iraq contacts between 1990 and 2003. Officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations were afraid of a political storm for talking to their Iraqi counterparts, “ultimately contributing to America’s blindness to the truth”.

Closer contact would, for example, have made decision-makers in Washington more aware how much Saddam had changed by 2000.

“He no longer had the same interest in military affairs that he had before,” Coll says. “He had withdrawn into himself. He was hard to find. He was afraid of assassins. And he was cranking out these handwritten novel pages day after day. He was writing like a fiend.

“We would have detected this and other things through conversations or hints, which might have given pause to the big group-think that prevailed in the intelligence community that he definitely had WMD.”


Regime change became US policy on Iraq during the Clinton administration, Coll reminds his readers, and the vice-president, Al Gore, was the most enthusiastic about Saddam’s overthrow, remaining so even after his narrow election loss to George W Bush in 2000.

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“There’s all this counterfactual speculation in parlour circles that if only Gore had won Florida, the Iraq war wouldn’t have happened,” Coll said. “I’m not so sure.”

Bush’s belief that Saddam had tried to kill his father, and the accusations of weakness against the elder Bush from the Republican right, for leaving Saddam in power after the Gulf war, all added to the younger Bush’s sense that Iraq was unfinished business, which in the dangerous world after 9/11 had to be resolved once and for all.

Saddam did not believe the Bush administration was serious about invasion until it was too late. The Iraqi leader opened his facilities and palaces to scrutiny from United Nations inspectors in late 2002, but by then Bush and Blair were set on military action.

Even then, the reflexes of Iraqi intelligence, programmed to shield the regime’s sensitive sites, made them treat the inspectors as potential spies or even assassins. Being suspicious made the Iraqi spies act suspiciously, giving the inspectors the impression they had something to hide, in turn entrenching Washington’s dangerous assumptions along the road to war.