The tyrant with a mobile phone. Saddam Hussein and his regime are better compared with Sicily's Corleone family than with Hitler and the Nazis. Take away the hostile rhetoric, and he is simply a typical tribal chief from Mesopotamia who happens to be at h

Saddam Hussein: an American obsession

Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn <em>Verso, 320pp, £9 pb

When I visited Baghdad six months ago, there was little to be found about Iraq on the shelves of bookshops back home in London. Now, like the proverbial buses, they all come at once. Most are new, some are updates of books first published years ago. They make for grim reading - depressing in subject matter and dreary to digest. Most are by journalists, the immediacy of stories written in haste not obviously improved by putting them between hard covers. I recall an earlier objection to the wars in the Balkans: so much homework to understand these foreign expeditions, so much working through tedious material, so much diversion of attention from more pressing or more interesting tasks. How much easier to be an eternal enthusiast for war, and accept everything one is told by the powers that be.

The book by the Cockburn brothers is a serious attempt at understanding what has been going on in Iraq, but it suffers (as does Con Coughlin's) from the usual problem created by journalists when moonlighting as authors: they tend to put in all they know rather than all that the reader needs to know. Both books refer, for example, to the story that Saddam's eldest son, Uday, even after a serious assassination attempt that temporarily left him in a wheelchair, likes to have sex with four different women a day, some of them under-age. This is a titillating, inconsequential and unverifiable tale, which only serves to show, if true, that rich young men in Iraq behave much like the Kennedy family in the United States. Most of the time, fortunately, the Cockburns are more selective, keeping the gossip to a minimum, and concentrating on painting an informative portrait of Iraq in the 1990s.

Con Coughlin is a writer from the Telegraph stable, with Telegraph readers in mind. Like the Cockburns, he uses journalistic licence to publish stories that are too good to check, and falls back on "intelligence sources" when he has run out of his own extensive material. Neither judge nor jury, he is on the prosecution team, admitting on the first page that writing a biography of Saddam is "like trying to assemble the prosecution case against a notorious criminal gangster".

Time has not improved the image of Saddam Hussein; he remains the typical tabloid ogre, in books as in newspapers, a figure so demonised, so deeply covered with ordure, that it is unimaginable that he could ever be washed clean. I have a possibly erroneous recollection that the magazine Living Marxism, that bizarre and unlamented religious sect, once tried to give him hero status in their hall of fame, along with Slobodan Milosevic; but today, every opponent of war still feels obliged to preface his or her remarks with a disclaimer to the effect that "I hold no brief for Saddam Hussein", rather as young Trotskyists once used to write the Soviet Union out of the script. Here is the anti-war activist George Monbiot, writing about Iraq in the Guardian: "We know that it is governed by one of the world's most bestial regimes, and that the lives of its people would be immeasurably improved if that regime was replaced by a democratic government."

That is the acceptable voice of liberal journalism, but just how "bestial" is Iraq when compared with many other contenders? What guarantee is there that the imposition of democracy would improve the lot of its disparate peoples, other than securing an end to sanctions? Is there anything useful that we can do about it anyway? These are questions that were once asked by Britain's anti-imperialists, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as they sought to oppose yet another gunboat expedition. "Do we find that Government and Parliament acquit themselves so well in domestic matters that they have a surplus of efficiency and energy for Hindustan?" asked Richard Cobden in 1857. "If Catholic and Protestant can't live together in Belfast, excepting under something like martial law, are we the people to teach Christian charity and toleration to the Hindus?" Today, sadly, the cogent voice of Cobden, with his simple plea for "non-intervention", is rarely echoed in the British parliament or media.

Saddam can look after himself, but it is worth recalling that other demonised third world leaders of the 20th century eventually made it out to the other side. Nasser and Kenyatta, princes of darkness both of them, became revered anti-colonial icons. There was a moment during the Vietnam war, circa 1967, when the anti-war movement, which had long concentrated on the illegality and immorality of American bombing, was suddenly electrified by the cry raised by a breakaway group: "Victory to the National Liberation Front!" The protesters who stormed Grosvenor Square in 1968 with the slogan "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!" didn't just campaign for the Americans to pack up and go home: they wanted the Vietnamese communists to win. "Uncle Ho" died in 1969, before he could achieve the status of Mandela (another figure once vilified), but he was well on the way to beatification.

Saddam has had no such luck. He and his regime remain deeply unattractive, and have found no credible apologists. He is portrayed, in most accounts, as a cardboard cut-out, blood dripping from its daggers. Whatever messages he may be sending out are inevitably drowned by the western mantra about "weapons of mass destruction" and "a man who kills his own people". It does not matter that Kuwait was perceived by the Iraqis as one of their provinces, or that the leaders of the innocents in Halabja had allied themselves with Iraq's enemies in Iran. Saddam, like Myra Hindley, will always be considered uniquely evil.

In the 1950s, it was customary for Conservative politicians to compare Nasser with Hitler, and Coughlin follows in the same tedious tradition. Indeed, the Nazis are mentioned so often in his text that he must have the American and Israeli market as much in his sights as the Telegraph reader. Berlin and Baghdad did have a special relationship throughout the 20th century, but it long predated the Nazi era. The Kaiser's archaeologists ransacked the ruins of Babylon before 1914, and its artefacts are displayed to this day to greater advantage in Berlin than in Iraq. If Germany had won the First World War, Iraq might have ended up under German rather than British trusteeship. In 1941, when the nationalist leader Rashid Ali turned against the British empire, he hoped for German support (it never materialised). Even Gerhard Schroder's opposition to the forthcoming British-American war in Iraq owes something to this rooted historical tradition. Yet none of this makes it worth comparing Saddam, or his henchmen, or his forerunners, with the Nazis. It is both pointless and misleading; they play an entirely different game. When the hostile and imbecile rhetoric is stripped away, Saddam should pose no real mystery. He is a wholly comprehensible figure, both a typical tribal chief from Mesopotamia and a political leader accustomed to operating in the modern, urban world. Born in 1937, he is from the Tigris town of Tikrit, a hundred miles north of Baghdad. He is still surrounded by Tikritis, a people whose "ancient reputation for savagery and brutality" was noted long ago by the British occupiers of Iraq. But Saddam makes no attempt - like Libya's Gaddafi - to pretend to be a sheikh in a tent. He is a modernist in a suit. Tribal punishments, once administered through beatings, now involve pistols and machine-guns.

It was as a modern secular ruler that Saddam received Donald Rumsfeld, an American official bearing a friendly message from Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad in December 1983. Sir John Moberly, Britain's ambassador in Baghdad at the time, is one of the few westerners to have summed him up objectively, and is quoted in Coughlin's book: "He was a man who clearly had a strong personality [and] who was very much in control of events. Everyone in Iraq knew where they stood. And they were well aware that if they stepped out of line that would be the end for them. Most Iraqis accepted that Iraq needed a strong leader to maintain law and order, and hold the country together."

Saddam's support for modernity can be glimpsed in the portraits of him that are displayed all over the country. These are not vulgar displays of a Stalinist cult of the personality, as is often assumed, but the sophisticated use of a custom common throughout the Arab world. What differentiates the portraits of Saddam from, say, those of the king of Jordan, is the presence of icons of 20th-century modernity. Saddam is shown with a camera, a typewriter, a telephone. More recent pictures provide him with a video camera, a computer, or a mobile phone. Doubtless, like the heads of all the UN Security Council members and some of his near neighbours - Israel, Pakistan and India - he would once have liked to have had himself painted in the company of a nuclear missile. Much of the Iraqi population would probably have liked that, too. In dismissing distant rulers as dictators, we forget that dictators are often just as popular or unpopular as democrats. Does Blair have the support of less than 30 per cent of the electorate, as measured at the last election? Saddam may well have about the same. After more than 30 years in power, a dictator often rules more through the people's inertia than because they remain terrified of what once took place. The secret police may still cause alarm, but some Iraqis are yet more frightened of what might happen next. No Kurd is likely to forgive Saddam for the chemical poisoning at Halabja, or for his other massacres, but many of them must have a real sense of dread about the internal wars that lie ahead. Only a handful are prepared for the human cost of liberation.

Like the Corleone family from Sicily in The Godfather, Saddam runs his particular enterprise with all the skill and ruthlessness at his command. He loves his daughters, holds his sons in contempt, and treats his extended family (with whom he has to share power) with disdain. His extraordinary survival is the result of his waking hours being focused on the struggle to remain in power, while his enemies - notably the Americans - have been only spasmodically interested in his overthrow. He also has, like the Bush family, the advantage of oil. In their book on Saddam, the Cockburn brothers underline its particular significance: "In the long run, the possession of immense oil fields strengthened authoritarian government in Iraq, as it did throughout the Middle East. Oil revenues made the state independent of society. It could pay for large armies and security forces without relying on taxes or foreign subsidies." Saddam (and any successor regime) does not need the Iraqi people; the income of the state arrives independently of their efforts.

Of these books, only Targeting Iraq, by the redoubtable Geoff Simons, makes an attempt to treat the Iraqi leader as a normal political figure, identifying him as an ordinary war criminal, like Bush or Blair. This version perceives the "Axis" powers of today as the leaders of Britain and America, rather than those of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Simons has spent half a lifetime boldly resurrecting anti-heroes of the developing world - Saddam, Gaddafi, Castro - whom more accommodating academics prefer to ignore. He reminds me of the late and forgotten Konni Zilliacus, a radical foreign policy "troublemaker", in A J P Taylor's happy phrase, who deployed his knowledge and experience of the League of Nations during debates in a rapidly emptying House of Commons. Dismissed as a communist fellow-traveller, he might just as well have saved his breath.

Simons is a troublemaker in the great tradition. He cannot be faulted for his expertise, nor for his mastery of the documents, resolutions and debates of the United Nations. His criticism of western strategy in the Middle East over the decades is beyond reproach, and anti-war campaigners will find his material indispensable. Milan Rai's book, written in a more populist mode, also has a vast reservoir of material useful for the anti-war movement. Yet although these two books may reach a large and receptive audience in most of the world, they preach to the converted and will probably fail to convince sceptical readers in Britain and the United States. Most such readers, locked in their old colonial mindset, will find them too subversive of their inbuilt prejudices.

There is not space here to do justice to Roger Scruton's latest splendid cannonade, but with refreshing brevity and wit, he aligns himself with the anti-globalisers, and even enlists Mohammed Atta, he of the twin towers, as a member of his campaign against the modernist tradition of Le Corbusier. Scruton would have no time for the modernism of Saddam, but it is not too fanciful to see him, in his Wiltshire retreat, as the reincarnation of William Cobbett, that sturdy rural radical who once wrote that it is "the business of every Englishman to take care of England and England alone. It is not our business to run about the world to look after people to set free; it is our business to look after ourselves." If only this Little Englander slogan were the message of the anti-war movement, it would save us all from a lot of unnecessary homework.

Richard Gott is writing a book about imperial rebellions