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There is no getting around it: leaders of vicious totalitarian states (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Saddam Hussein) are fascinating. How they rose from humble backgrounds to such personal power, when all they had to offer was torture and twisted ideas, is hard to fathom for those who live in well-established democracies, accustomed to the rule of law. Saddam's story is made all the more timely by the prospect of his trial for his many crimes. Coughlin's exciting and very specific biography of Saddam Hussein provides a wealth of detail about the secretive Iraqi leadership: their decision-making, their interactions among themselves, and—most titillating but also perhaps most revealing—their intimate personal lives. It makes for a great read.

There is only one minor problem: much of what he writes may not be true. Many of the intriguing revelations are stated without any source for backup. When sources are cited, they are frequently "author's interview" with no additional detail about with whom, when, or where—which glides over the sticky problem that those who know have every reason to keep quiet, and those who talk have every reason to lie to exaggerate their importance.

From what can be checked, there is reason to worry about Coughlin's accuracy. On a number of well-researched points, Coughlin's account differs from what extensive investigation has shown. For instance, he writes, "Saddam had been promised the [Osirak] reactor would be ready to produce weapons-grade material by July 1981." While no one can know for sure who may have promised what to Saddam, there is a lot of material about what Saddam was told about the nuclear program, and there is no reason to think anyone told a whopper like that. After all, the Osirak reactor was physically incapable of producing weapons-grade material (instead, it was a step in the chain to get such material). His account of Iraq's chemical weapons use gets the context wrong (it was a desperate measure to stop Iranian breakthroughs, not to permit Iraqi advances) as well as many of the details. He seems to have done little detailed research: in all the footnotes and bibliography, one book in Arabic is cited (one of Saddam's—two of his other books are cited in French). Now that the United States has seized Saddam and the records of his regime, future accounts promise to be more thorough and reliable.

Patrick Clawson