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Saddam’s Secret Weapon

Saddam Hussein was a cruel, evil man, but that is hardly how he is remembered.

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The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the CIA, and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq, Steve Coll, Penguin Press, 576 pages

Saddam Hussein was the first person I saw die on television. It was December 30, 2006. CNN pointedly chose not to show the actual moment of execution, but some other station must have because I remember with great clarity the grainy video of the hanging, filmed surreptitiously on an Iraqi cell phone. I was in fourth grade, and what impressed me most was not the rope nor the scaffold nor the loud crack when the dictator’s neck broke, but Saddam’s face in the moments beforehand. It bore more than a look of defiance. I would call it melancholy, with a touch of the smug. It was as if Saddam believed that through this inglorious death he would become, permanently, the martyr in whose image he had always drawn himself.   


Saddam was forever prophesying about his place in history, and those last few minutes with his executioners were no exception. On the way to the scaffold he argued about his legacy, and when the rope was put around his neck he taunted his captors. “Do you consider this bravery?” he asked. Someone in the crowd below shouted, “Go to hell!” and Saddam fired back, “The hell that is Iraq?” The shouting increased in its intensity, and Saddam defended himself. “I have saved you from destitution and misery and destroyed your enemies, the Persians and Americans,” he said, and soon began to recite the Shahada. Halfway through his second profession, the trapdoor beneath his feet swung open, and moments later he was dead. To the end, he had maintained belief in his personal myth. For Saddam, it was not what actually happened to him that was significant, but what he thought had happened.

In the 15 years or so leading up to that moment, personal myth was one of Saddam’s only comforts. American troops had humiliated him in 1991 on that long highway out of Kuwait. Worse, American camera crews had filmed the whole affair for the world’s entertainment. The leaders of all the richest nations had denounced him and isolated his regime. They had imposed crippling economic sanctions on his country. And soon officious Swedish diplomats from the United Nations had begun hounding his scientists, demanding a full accounting of Saddam’s secret nuclear weapons program, even after the scientists told the inspectors repeatedly, and, after a fashion, truthfully, that the nuclear weapons program never existed...we destroyed it! It didn’t help that Saddam faced his troubles alone. His half-brothers were ne’er-do-well sycophants; his sons spoiled wastoids; and his right-hand man, Hussein Kamel, whom Saddam had been grooming to succeed him, was in actuality a traitor, a monster to whom the harshest justice must be applied. The aging dictator looked out of his twilit window and saw nothing but ruin; only within the palace of his mind could he still rule the kingdom of his longing.

About this time, in the mid-1990s, Saddam turned to literature. He had always been a great reader, of course, and as a young man attempting to prove himself among older Ba’ath revolutionaries, he had developed a Jay Gatsby–like regimen of self-education. He read novels, international newspapers, political philosophy—anything he could get his hands on. He counted The Old Man and the Sea and Hemingway’s work more generally among his favorite books, in large part because he identified personally with Papa. And Saddam wasn’t hesitant to advertise his self-cultivated literary prowess. His longtime advisor and deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, recalled how when he first met Saddam at a 1963 Ba’ath conference in Syria that the young man consciously presented as someone who “worked on improving himself” and “read a lot.” But it was only when Saddam entered his 60s and began to think seriously, as old men do, of his own death, that he himself began to write. Soon a novel began to form in his mind.

This was Saddam’s creative process: He woke up every day at about 5:00 a.m. and dressed in clothing that had been laid out for him by a valet. He then drank his tea and armed himself with a small pistol and a handful of cigars to carry him through the long afternoons. (He limited himself to four Cubans per diem.) When it was a writing day, he holed himself up in one of his many palaces—far away from the affairs of state—and, to paraphrase the words of his hero, sat at his desk and bled. Saddam always wrote longhand. On a good day he would produce fifty pages of elegantly inscribed Arabic script; on most days he could only manage ten. His sentences were long and tangled, like something out of the novels of William Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon. Saddam would frequently begin with a straightforward declarative phrase, slash through the middle of the sentence with a parenthetical digression, and then conclude with a wry comment, a bitter observation—always something unexpected.   

His copy editors suspected that the dictator simply did not know how to write. “Even when he tackled simple ideas, he couldn’t help himself and used a complex style,” said one of Saddam’s aides who worked in his press office. “He would get lost in parenthetical phrases.” But Saddam insisted that his choices were intentional; they were “his own personal touch.” When the copy editors sent him marked-up drafts correcting his grammar and syntax—and wondering aloud what to do with the mess of Arabic proverbs and Koranic verses interjected into his story—Saddam rejected most of their changes. Style was his province. His editors were just there to type his manuscript and run fact checks on historical dates, name spellings, and the like. 


In any case, this is how Saddam produced his first novel, Zabiba and the King, an allegorical tale which was released in 2000 to rave reviews in Baghdad. The dictator chose to publish the book anonymously (its cover advertises it only as “by its author”), but everyone knew he had written it. Zabiba quickly became a bestseller (it is estimated that more than a million copies were distributed throughout Iraq). Saddam’s foreign office ordered that the book be handed out to members of visiting foreign delegations. It was adapted into a twenty-part miniseries for Iraqi television and a musical at the Iraqi National Theater, whose premiere Saddam attended. 

Obviously Zabiba owes much of its success to the fact that a brutal regime forced it to become successful, but the novel does have its points of interest. It tells the story of a medieval pagan king (Saddam) ruling Tikrit (Saddam’s hometown), who falls in love with Zabiba, a beautiful and wise peasant woman (the Iraqi people). Although the king is powerful, he fears his queen and courtiers; he knows there are plots against his life everywhere in his palace. Zabiba alone gives him good counsel and dares to tell him the truth about the evil lurking in his midst. She suffers for her candor. Her husband (the United States), jealous of the favor the king shows to her, brutally rapes her in a forest, “like a wild animal in the attack of desire.” Meanwhile, the other lords (the coalition forces in the Gulf War) rebel against the king and attempt to depose him.

But all ends well. Zabiba rushes to the rescue and leads the people to the defense of the king. Before going into battle, she declares her love for him, divorces her husband, and becomes the king’s lawful wife. Then she dies a glorious death. The book ends with a long post-mortem citizens’ assembly meeting, in which characters representing Saddam’s enemies—the United States, Israel, various Iraqi resistance leaders—are punished for their disloyalty. The king, too, dies, the death of a martyr. Yet Saddam spends little time glorifying him. His comment on the king’s passing, the most memorable line in the whole novel, is a fatalistic sigh: “Every day, there were fewer and fewer kings.” 

For years, Saddam-watchers at the CIA assumed that there was no way that the dictator could have actually written Zabiba himself; he must have employed a ghostwriter. Too much of it reads like a real novel—even if a rather clumsy one—and Zabiba seems almost too well-rounded to have come from such a crude mind. But in this, as in many of its other assumptions about Saddam, the CIA was wrong. So writes Steve Coll in The Achilles Trap, which details for the first time the entire history of Saddam Hussein and his regime’s relationship with the American intelligence community, from its covert actions with the Reagan administration in the Iran-Iraq War to its demise at the hands of George W. Bush’s invasion forces in 2003. 

Coll focuses primarily on the history of the faulty information passed around about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, but The Achilles Trap doubles as a surprisingly sympathetic study of a man who, as his powers slipped away, spent the last decade of his life jerry-rigging monuments of his own magnificence. Coll draws much of his material from extensive interviews with retired American intelligence officers and former members of Saddam’s bureaucracy, as well as from a previously unavailable archive of audio tapes from Saddam’s own state offices. What emerges is a portrait of Saddam as an eccentric in the mold of G.K. Chesterton—if Chesterton were bloodthirsty, paranoid, and power-mad—a man driven ultimately by deep reverence for the sense that hides beneath nonsense.         

Saddam almost always spoke in paradoxes, but most frequently when he discoursed on foreign policy. Throughout the whole Iran–Iraq War, he suspected that, although the CIA was passing him intelligence about Iranian tank movements, the United States, Israel, and Iran were nevertheless involved in a recondite conspiracy against him. On its face, this was an insane belief—two of those countries were bitter enemies, at least on paper—but when the Iran–Contra affair became an international scandal in 1987, Saddam declared he had been vindicated. “Zionism is taking the Iranians by the hand and introducing them to each party, one by one, channel by channel,” he shouted during a cabinet meeting. “I mean, Zionism—come on, comrades—do I have to repeat that every time?”

This claim was not, strictly speaking, true. But there was something undeniable about the attractiveness of the proposition. Israel did sell arms to Iran and, as it happened, the CIA also facilitated weapons transfers to the Iranian army. But there was no coordination, no grand plan—only the contradictory movements of little powers within great powers, each pursuing its own ends. Saddam’s genius, the unique ability that both made and unmade him, was a refusal to see the world like that. For him everything was connected; there was always unity beneath chaos. “It was a pattern that would recur between Washington and Baghdad,” Coll writes. “What many Americans understood as staggering incompetence in their nation’s foreign policy, Saddam interpreted as manipulative genius.”

This same attitude guided Saddam’s justification for his plans to develop nukes. In 1990, for instance, he explained to Bob Dole and a delegation of other American senators that, under the principles of nuclear deterrence, Arab nations should have the right “to possess any weapon that their enemy possesses.” He was referring to Israel. “Iraq does not possess atomic bombs,” Saddam continued. “If we did, we would announce that, to preserve peace and to prevent Israel from using their atomic bombs.” Over the years, Saddam repeated those words many times, though after the Gulf War, no one believed he really was interested in deterrence. Besides, when had Israel ever threatened to nuke him? Do the principles of nuclear deterrence even apply among regional powers? It all sounded too crazy to be true. But I suspect that in some weird way, Saddam meant exactly what he said.

So firmly did Saddam believe in the underlying unity of the world that after enduring years of unrelenting UN inspections, he began to wonder if maybe Iraq did secretly possess WMDs after all. Why else would the Swedes keep badgering him? “Do you have any programs going on that I don’t know about?” he asked his deputy prime minister in 1998. “Absolutely not,” the minister replied, thinking this was a loyalty test—and only later realizing that the dictator was in earnest. Not long after, another one of Saddam’s aides approached him with the same question. “Do we have WMD?” he asked. “Don’t you know?” Saddam replied. “No!” the minister yelped. “No,” Saddam said. And when Saddam announced to his generals on the eve of the Iraq War that Iraq definitely did not possess nuclear weapons, many were surprised. They had always assumed that his constant questions about the subject implied some radiant secret, hidden from all eyes but his own.

Saddam did, however, occasionally refer to his “secret weapon” in the months leading up to Bush’s invasion. This weapon was something that he seemed to believe was far more powerful than any nuclear bomb. “Resist one week and after that I will take over,” he told his ministers at their last cabinet meeting. And, gathering his generals, he instructed them “to hold the coalition for eight days.” Then he promised to swoop in with a secret force of untold power.

That force turned out to be a book, another novel. Since the success of Zabiba, Saddam had written two works of fiction, The Fortified Castle and Men and the City, but neither had caused quite the same stir. It was only as the United States turned its big black eye on Baghdad that inspiration struck once again. Saddam began pulling all-nighters, simultaneously sketching out his war plan and scribbling away at his new novel. Every morning his editors received fresh installments of the manuscript, which, it must be admitted, were looked over with perhaps a little too much haste. But there was no time for stylistic quibbling. Two days before the American bombing began, Saddam retreated to a villa in a suburb of Baghdad and banged out the rest of his book. It was rushed to the presses—even as the invasion began—and the regime managed to print about forty thousand copies.  

I happen to have one of these copies on hand—borrowed from a university library—and I have been working though it with bemusement. A Farewell to Arms it is not. The book, so far as I know, has never been published in English, and it is difficult to find even in Arabic. It is known under varying titles, among them Begone, Demons; Get Out, You Damned One!; and Devil’s Dance. Like Zabiba, it is an allegorical historical novel, set somewhere in the outposts of the Roman empire. It tells the story of the three grandsons of Ibrahim: Ezekiel, Youssef, and Mahmoud, each of whom represents the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims, respectively. It is a moral tale, and the morals are deadeningly predictable. The Jews are perfidious; the Christians feckless; only the Muslims possess any degree of integrity.

There is one scene, however, that is quite striking. It is the novel’s conclusion. Ezekiel, in an alliance with the Romans (the United States), has built two towers in which he stores his ill-gotten riches. The Arabs in a self-sacrificial act burn the towers, destroying them utterly, a calamity that prompts Ezekiel to throw dust in his face and wail in anguish. Saddam treats the destruction of the towers as an event ordained by God, a sign of great victories to come. From far away, the smoldering ruins can be seen by all. Birds descend from heaven, and the common people weep for joy. Allahu Akbar, God is great, Saddam concludes.

Begone, Demons was intended to instill courage in the Iraqi people, to inspire them to resist the invading forces to the bitter end. Everyone knew that Bush was using 9/11 to invade Iraq, and with the novel, Saddam attempted to flip the script on him, to use 9/11 to repulse Bush. He saw himself as a sort of warrior poet, leading an insurgency not with the power of his weapons, but by the strength of his words. From the underground, he published several poems and recorded many exhortations much in the same spirit of Begone, Demons. And, even as the Ba’ath regime collapsed and Saddam’s comrades surrendered, the dictator persisted in his fervor. He was living his personal myth, right up until the moment when American forces dragged him out of a shallow hole in December 2003. Just before they found him, Saddam had been hard at work on a new novel.

Prison seemed to confirm Saddam’s belief in his own myth. Finally, he knew with certainty that he would not die in his bed; he would not leave this world an old man beset by the cares of domestic life. He would be executed, and, like all of the heroes of his novels, die a martyr’s death for the only cause more noble than himself: his image of himself. A strange calm settled within the dictator. He laughed with his jailors. He wrote more poetry and smoked cigars with his nurse. When the CIA came to interview him, he fooled around with his interrogators, answering their questions with questions and often speaking in parables. One of his handlers remembers Saddam as remarkably lucid, free from any signs of “anxiety, confusion, paranoia, or delusion.” At times, “he even displayed a self-deprecating sense of humor.”

Nearly twenty years after his death, which, probably to Saddam’s satisfaction, was watched by millions of people worldwide, it is hard to escape the suspicion that in some crazy, backward way, Saddam was right about himself. Indeed, his personal myth has long outlived him and become embellished to the point of absurdity. Saddam Hussein was a cruel, evil man—it is said that he once fed one of his adversaries to a Doberman Pinscher for sport—but that is hardly how he is remembered today. Rather, he is remembered as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, a prudent moderate in comparison to those who followed. His death was not quite a martyrdom, but there are those who say it was something near to it. Jacques Chirac, one of the few Western politicians to understand Saddam, spoke rightly when he advised in the run-up to the invasion for the United States to leave the dictator alone. Ultimately, he said, Saddam would only use antagonism to his advantage. “The way Saddam thinks is the best way to regain control of the people is to pretend to be a martyr,” Chirac predicted. Perhaps the secret weapon worked after all. Even now, the martyr’s myth lives on, dazzling so many who cast a glance toward Saddam.


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