Iraq Under Saddam Hussein
Review Article by Peter Wien
The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant's Regime, 1978-2001, by Kevin M. Woods, David D. Palkki, and Mark Stout. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 392 pages. $36.99.
State-Society Relations in Ba'thist Iraq: Facing Dictatorship, by Achim Rohde. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. 272 pages. $130.
Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, by Joseph Sassoon. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 336 pages. $27.99.
The three books that are the subject of this review essay share the larger objective of contributing to a better understanding of how dictatorships function. In the context of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which is the focus of all three books, this question has an implication that harkens back to the months of the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of the country that brought the collapse of the regime. Several justifications were used for the invasion, some concrete (though unfounded, as we now know), such as the allegation that Iraq was in the possession of large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), or the accusation that the country's government was implicated in the September 11 attacks of 2001. Other justifications were less concrete, such as the depiction of Saddam Hussein as a dictator over a totalitarian system that held the population of Iraq in a stranglehold comparable to Hitler's Nazi regime or Stalin's Soviet rule.
All three books reflect on these themes, but use different approaches to primary sources about Iraqi history. Achim Rohde's State-Society Relations in Ba'thist Iraq: Facing Dictatorship represents a cultural history approach that is based on a meticulous study of Iraqi newspapers, as well as visual material of the period between the 1970s and the 1990s. Rohde uses this material very effectively to deconstruct an interpretation of Saddam Hussein's regime based on a totalitarianism paradigm by re-inserting spaces of dissension and artistic self-assertion into the story of the rise and fall of the dictator. His inquiry targets the regime's gender policy and the ambiguous relationship between the state and the Iraqi art scene to highlight the volatility of the public sphere and its vestiges under a dictatorship.
Joseph Sassoon's Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party is the first major in-depth study that is based on the document troves that were captured by the US Army in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, as well as the documents in the collection of the Iraq Memory Foundation, now housed at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. The latter collection consists of a vast trove of Ba'th Party and intelligence documents that the Iraqi-American author and intellectual Kanan Makiya retrieved and moved - some would say abducted without proper authorization - to the United States in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. Sassoon presents a broad account of activities that are documented in these records, ranging from those of the smallest party cells at the bottom of the system, to those of the highest echelons of Saddam Hussein's most trusted circles.
The third book in this group, The Saddam Tapes, is an edited collection of excerpts from the transcriptions of the recorded meetings of Saddam Hussein's inner decision-making circles from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. The tapes were confiscated by coalition troops in the course of the invasion and brought to the US, where a team of researchers and translators digitized and processed them, first for government but meanwhile also for public usage at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.
The first part of Rohde's book is a very useful and up-to-date overview of the current state of historiography about Iraq under Ba'th party rule. The second part delves into the analysis of primary sources, first, of Ba'thist gender politics and the struggles of the Ba'thist women's organization, the General Federation of Iraqi Women, to hold up the beacon of gender equality, and second, about difficulties that writers and artists had in carving out a space under an authoritarian regime. …