How the West and Saddam Hussein lured each other into a sea of blood

US forces move into position near the Iraqi border on March 18, 2003
US forces move into position near the Iraqi border on March 18, 2003 - Getty/Scott Nelson

At a distance of over 20 years, you would be hard pressed to find someone who still believes in either of the lies presented by the CIA to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It has been made abundantly clear, from scholarly research, investigative reporting and terabytes of archival leaks, that Saddam Hussein had neither direct ties to Al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11 2001 nor an active programme to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

But the strange revelation at the heart of The Achilles Trap, Steve Coll’s absorbing and panoramic book about the long relationship between America and Saddam’s Iraq, is that no one seems to have believed in the power of the CIA more than Saddam himself. Indeed, the Iraqi dictator, who had ruled since the late 1970s, emerges here as a kind of moustachioed Josef K, so sure of the CIA’s reach and power that he found it difficult to believe the rumblings of war even as they grew to a roar. Saddam had always felt that America and its allies had been out to get him, but surely (so he thought) the US would not invade Iraq on the basis on WMDs, given that the US knew for a fact that there were none to be found?

The thought may seem a little facile for a man who ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 on the basis of some murky accusations of slant drilling. But the mystery is complicated by the question of why Saddam refused open access and weapon inspections in Iraq when he ostensibly had nothing to hide. In what now appears to be a pattern with American-led military interventions in the Middle East, there existed such a colossal and mutual lack of understanding that the two sides were in essence fighting different wars.

Iraq had been a strategic ally to the US in the early 1980s, yet never quite a friend. While battling Iran for sovereignty of the east bank of the Shatt al-Arab river, Saddam cast himself as the “Fidel Castro of the Middle East”, standing alone against US oil interests in the region. Nonetheless, American officials judged – despite there being only one CIA operative stationed in Baghdad – that Iraq could serve as a bulwark against the destabilising threat of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Military intelligence was therefore shared, with the US keeping a watchful distance until the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, the inflection point of open enmity.

Then-PM Tony Blair and US president George W Bush in September 2002
Then-PM Tony Blair and US president George W Bush in September 2002 - EPA

Coll’s book is informed in large part by a trove of materials from Saddam’s presidential offices and intelligence agencies, secured through a freedom-of-information request from the Pentagon, along with over 100 interviews with sources who lived through the events described. Readers hoping for a succinct accounting of the quid of American motivations for the 2003 invasion won’t find that here: rather than a hawkish conspiracy or revenge-plot, it’s the accumulation of unreliable intelligence assets, and a pervasive guilt over the failure to prevent 9/11, that gain momentum in Coll’s telling. As the war approaches, leaders on both sides routinely misinterpret the facts to fit their flawed narratives.

Yet, against a Greek chorus of bumbling secret agents and incompetent world leaders, Coll paints an oddly sympathetic portrait of the man who would come to be known as the Butcher of Baghdad. When abroad, Saddam dresses rakishly in “burnt-orange, double-breasted, wide-striped business suits”, and tips exorbitantly. Over the course of his life, he writes four allegorical-historical novels, the last of which, Begone, Demons, he’s reported to have completed in the days before American forces capture his capital city. We read of Saddam pushing through educational reform and industrial development, while attempting to curb the violent excesses of his relatives, not least his sociopathic son Uday, a serial murderer, torturer and rapist.

Saddam Hussein makes a speech in Baghdad in 1998
Saddam Hussein makes a speech in Baghdad in 1998 - AP

This isn’t to suggest that Coll smooths over Saddam’s early embrace of chemical weapons during the war with Iran in the 1980s, which resulted in over a million estimated casualties, or the bloodcurdling tales of summary executions and imprisonments, exemplified by the many gruesome versions of how Riyadh Ibrahim, then-minister for health, was executed for suggesting Saddam temporarily step down during that same war.

Saddam amassed legions of secret police, and total control of information and movement in Iraq. Moreover, his centrality to America’s notion of regional stability allowed him to continually consolidate his totalitarian rule. It therefore isn’t difficult to understand how he could keep his subjects in lockstep against the meddling West but his inner circle surprisingly uninformed about matters of the highest importance. Even “Chemical Ali” Hassan al-Majid, the military commander executed in 2007 for genocidal war crimes, had to ask Saddam in a 2003 meeting whether Iraq actually possessed WMDs or not.

What is less clear, even in Coll’s meticulous reportage, is why a faceless army of public servants and so-called intelligence analysts on both sides of the Atlantic – and as far afield as Poland and Australia – so willingly greased the wheels of the war machine that George W Bush and Tony Blair were eager to deploy. This mangled concatenation of events, built and sustained on falsehoods, resulted in an invasion and occupation that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and almost 5,000 Coalition military personnel.


The Achilles Trap is published by Allen Lane at £30. To order your copy for £25, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books