The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the United States and the Middle East, 1979–2003 by Steve Coll - review by Rory Mccarthy

Rory Mccarthy

The Case of the Vanishing Missiles

The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the United States and the Middle East, 1979–2003


Allen Lane 576pp £30

On the evening of 13 December 2003, nine months after the invasion of Iraq, a combat team from the US 4th Infantry Division arrived at a small farmhouse by the River Tigris, north of Baghdad. Soldiers pulled back a mat on a patio to reveal a narrow, chest-deep hole, out of which they dragged a dishevelled Saddam Hussein, a pistol tucked in his belt. ‘I am the president of Iraq, and I am willing to negotiate,’ he said. Two decades earlier, the Iraqi dictator had been a US pawn who, it was hoped, might restrain the revolutionary clerics across the border in Tehran. But Washington and Baghdad misread each other, stumbling from alliance into seismic confrontation, the Americans driven by the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that the Iraqi regime had long since destroyed. In his compelling book, journalist Steve Coll investigates the prewar years to ask why the Americans found the Iraqi dictator so hard to fathom and why Saddam effectively sacrificed his regime in the cause of weapons he did not possess.

The picture that emerges of Saddam’s motivations seems contradictory. The Iraqi leader was both ‘exceptionally cunning’ and ‘as unsubtle as a shotgun blast’. His cruelty is already well documented. Within days of becoming president in 1979, Saddam purged the leadership of his Baath Party, ordering party members to shoot their

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