The Magazine

Baathed in Blood

Chronicling the horror, and scope, of Saddam's tyranny.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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Le Livre noir de Saddam Hussein

Edited by Chris Kutschera

Oh! Editions, 701 pp., 29.90 Euros

IN A BRIGHT ROOM IN Baghdad, Saddam Hussein is on trial. In the din of America's public square, so is the invasion that overthrew him. An international stable of writers argue that the only evidence that matters, in both trials, is of Saddam's horrifying human rights violations. Nine years after the acclaimed Black Book of Communism appeared, another French publisher has issued a 701-page "black book of Saddam Hussein" that pushes to the background all talk of WMDs, skewed intelligence, terrorism, and democratization, and focuses our attention on the atrocities of a tyrant of historic proportions.

The book's editor, veteran French journalist Chris Kutschera, concludes that while "the American war may not have been the ideal way to put an end to Saddam Hussein's dictatorship," there was no better one, because overthrow was simply no longer possible from within a savagely repressed society. So: No invasion, more Saddam. And that was an outcome these authors--an array of Middle Eastern, European, and American journalists, academics, and activists--could not bear.

This hefty volume includes almost three dozen substantive chapters chronicling the rise and record of Iraq's Baath party, the operations of Saddam's secret police, his cult of personality, his sanguinary wars against Iran and Kuwait, and his international suppliers of arms and diplomatic support. They show that Saddam's quarter-century in power was a virtually uninterrupted exercise in bloodletting in nearly every direction.

Soon after becoming president, he massacred personal opponents in and outside of his ruling Baath party. For the next two decades, he would subject critics and adversaries to a steady stream of torture, assassination, and terror, including the rape rooms, prison horrors, and executions that were regularly reported by Amnesty International and others. Fellow Sunni Arabs were not exempt, but the main categories of victims were Iranians, Kuwaitis, and Iraq's Kurds and Shiites.

In 1980, Saddam launched a needless and bloody war against majority-Shiite Iran and terrorized Iraq's own Shiites to ensure their quiescence. As that war wound down, Saddam was freed to turn his attention to the Kurds whose loyalty was, indeed, questionable. In the 1988 "Anfal" campaigns, his henchmen killed 100,000 or more Kurds (including through poison gas) and forcibly resettled thousands more in desolate regions elsewhere in Iraq--events that Human Rights Watch declared "genocide."

Two years later, he invaded Kuwait and treated its civilians with notable brutality. When Operation Desert Storm shattered Saddam's army, both Kurds and southern Iraqi Shiites rose in revolt, and the regime maintained power through astonishing savagery, which filled mass graves across southern Iraq with an unknown number of Shiites--perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. The same images are evoked again and again: rapes, murder of children, forms of torture that make your eyes flinch from the page, and masses of victims buried in the night.

The book's marketing strategy prominently claims that Saddam's quarter-century claimed two million lives. That might overstate the tragedy. It's also premature; researchers simply can't settle on a persuasive number of victims until those mass graves are unearthed in the years to come. But what cannot be denied is the scope of Saddam's atrocities. Within his regime, Saddam ruled like Stalin: Everyone in the elite was a potential victim, and knew it. Outside the regime, he ruled more like Hitler: Since oil-rich Iraq didn't need Soviet-style slave labor, Saddam simply killed his adversaries.

In one of the most insightful essays, Hazem Saghieh, a prominent London-based Lebanese journalist, argues that comparisons to those totalitarian counterparts are not out of place. And in the preface, Bernard Kouchner, the human rights campaigner and founder of Doctors Without Borders, unabashedly calls Saddam "one of the worst tyrants in history."

The most unsettling chapters recount Baathist violations against Kurds and Shiites, as well as individual episodes like the 1960s persecution of Iraq's remaining Jews and the extermination of regime opponents like the Kurdish Barzani clan and the Shiite al-Hakim family. Details abound; Kutschera's chapter on the Kurds is a short book in its own right. Of course, even a book this size has omissions. Most obviously, it covers only sporadically the years from the first Gulf War to 2003, when the regime ruled by unconcealed gangsterism and reduced Iraqis to deepening penury.