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The best books on Iraq

recommended by Colin Freeman

The Sunday Telegraph’s chief foreign correspondent on the dangers of being a journalist in the Iraq war. "When a little of group of kids wandered up and said, 'Hello mister, how are you?', it was time to leave"

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James Hider’s book, The Spiders of Allah, has been criticised for being “macho” and I was wondering whether you think that’s a fair criticism?

No I don’t. Obviously the book deals with war and its horrors – car bombs and so forth, but it’s not written in a remotely macho way. There are two things that I like about this book. Firstly, the description of the places and the vividness of the writing is very good. As someone who has been to some of the places he describes and done similar things, I feel that he really brings it to life. And I also like that he was in Iraq for almost three years, which is longer than I was there. Very few people spent anything like that amount of time in the country, so Hider has a perspective that not many other people have.

This may sound a bit like special pleading, but there is occasionally a bit of sniffiness about reporters writing books about their time in a war zone. People think, “Oh it’s just another journo’s memoirs.” But in Hider’s case, and certainly in the case of Iraq generally, it’s true to say that, in terms of providing a westerner’s perspective, journalists were among the very few people who saw what was going on in Iraq from all sides. If you were with the military or the civilian administration you weren’t really allowed out of the Green Zones to see things for yourself. This was because of security concerns – it wasn’t that others weren’t prepared to take those risks. It’s just the way it was. So by talking to people from all walks of life and chronicling what was going on, I think Hider has done a very good job. He brings a whole country to life.

“In terms of providing a westerner’s perspective, journalists were among the very few people who saw what was going on in Iraq from all sides.”

And, more importantly, it’s written in a very entertaining style and it’s very readable. A mistake that a lot of journalists make when writing a book is that they simply chronicle what’s going on without paying sufficient attention to whether it’s readable or not, and they end up with something that reads like an academic text. Which is fine, but it might not encourage a lot of people to read it.

Your second book, Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession, by the brothers Patrick and Andrew Cockburn, is not a biography of Saddam himself, is it?

I would describe it as a biography of the events of the 1990s. It describes a lot about what went on in Saddam’s regime, and very artfully weaves in some reportage that the authors have done themselves. One scene in particular stands out in my mind – when they meet one of Saddam’s sons in a nightclub.

There are also some very good accounts of what Iraq was like during the UN sanctions, when life for Iraqis became very difficult. But what you have to remember with this book and all those written in Saddam’s time is that reliable and accurate information is very hard to come by. To try to make sense of it is very admirable.

And what is also interesting are the descriptions of how people tried to lead military coups against Saddam using members of the Iraqi opposition, mostly from northern Iraq. It shows just how difficult it was to lead those coups and how formidable Saddam’s intelligence apparatus was. With every single unsuccessful attempt, all the inside agents would be arrested, and so the number of people who knew what was going on became ever smaller. When you read this book you realise that the option of launching a coup, which is something that a lot of people used to talk about, as if to say, “Why didn’t we do that rather than invade?”, was because it was actually hard. It had been attempted numerous times and no one had managed it.

To a certain extent the book is dated, but it’s still a good book for providing an idea of the intrigue involved in the CIA-led plots against him and the unreliability of the people the CIA put their hopes in. This is a useful lesson to take away and apply to any country where you think the Americans might be trying to destabilise things. It shows that it’s not an exact science and that often the CIA are not the all-powerful outfit you might expect.

Con Coughlin’s book, Saddam: The Secret Life, portrays a monster comparable to Stalin. How striking did you find the similarity?

Saddam expressed his admiration for Stalin on numerous occasions and describes him as not being a communist but a nationalist. And I think Saddam was trained by the KGB, which accounts in part for why he was able to run his country so brutally.

His book came out shortly before the war began and it was arguably one of the best-timed biographies of the century. If you were in Baghdad you would see all manner of people carrying copies of it. The American soldiers had it, the foreign civilian officials working with the US administration had it, all the journalists had it, and quite a lot of Iraqis were interested in getting copies.

It’s a fairly even-handed account of the history of Iraq from Saddam’s time onward. It’s very good at describing his life, which was often pretty rocky. Saddam was born into a fairly notorious tribe in Tikrit, in northern Iraq in a village known for violence. He was very much a guy born on the wrong side of the tracks. He was a criminal and, like many of the worst dictators, such as Stalin, he was a criminal before he was a politician, as well as a murderer and a thug. When people like that get hold of the reins of power it’s a recipe for disaster.

So the book’s based on good information?

I cannot put my hand on heart and say that what you read in these two books is the 100 per cent truth about Saddam – simply because too many people in that part of the world have been killed or are unreliable witnesses. In the beginning of Coughlin’s book, for example, there is quite a telling remark. He says that writing the biography of Saddam Hussein is like trying to assemble the prosecution case against a notorious gangster: most of the key witnesses have either been murdered or are too afraid to talk. This shows you what people are up against in trying to write these books. They are not easy books to write.

Why did you choose Oliver Poole’s Red Zone: Five Bloody Years in Iraq?

Because he returned to Iraq in 2005, when things were going from bad to worse. The situation then had become so awful that many people had simply written it off. In early 2006 the sectarian civil war started in earnest (although it had been going on for the best part of the year before, but no one was willing to admit it was happening). Reporting outside of two very small areas as a non-embedded reporter was a very difficult and dangerous job. There were so few areas that you could go to that most news bureaus had given up – myself included. The risk was just not worth the reward. But Oliver stuck it out and in doing so penned a book about that very dark period, much of which I haven’t read elsewhere.

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The accounts of how it all goes wrong in Basra are very good and it conveys the fear, the utter misery, and the sheer difficulty of working there. There is one part that sticks out in my mind, from a journalistic point of view. Oliver Poole visited the war cemetery in Baghdad sometime in 2006, and at that stage it was so dangerous for a foreigner to be there that when a little of group of kids wandered up and said, “Hello mister, how are you?”, it was time to leave. He and his translator knew the kids might wander off and tell an adult they’d seen a foreigner. When you have to be scared of children saying hello, it shows you how difficult things have become. Some people used to snipe and say that journalists in Iraq were sitting in hotels doing nothing, but I would say that if you have not been there it’s not fair to criticise.

You yourself were shot, and Poole’s translator’s brother was kidnapped?

They never found out what happened to him. The worst thing was the taunting phone calls made to the translator. They would say: “We have your brother here…”

When you and a Spanish photographer were kidnapped in Somalia for six weeks last year, did you have some terrible ideas running through your mind, having read this?

In Iraq, Westerners were taken hostage and often killed, but Somalia did not have the same reputation for killing hostages. So we hoped that we would be OK. But the hard thing was that we were in the hands of a group of criminals, and they are not predictable people. My main fear was that, even if the people holding us seemed all right, I never knew when they might pass me on to someone else. We were not informed of what was going on behind the scenes and I was always concerned that someone would sell us to al-Qaeda or some other horrible group, and that would be it.

In John Lee Anderson’s book, The Fall of Baghdad, he interviews members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party which must provide a different perspective from the other books?

Yes. He interviewed various Iraqis and shows the ambivalent relationship people had with the regime. He also includes some thorough and dextrous research. For example, he went to Iran and asked Iraqis there what they thought of Saddam and the US-led war and so on.

I would just say that if you want a book about the fall of Baghdad it’s a highly readable account, which I personally prize as being the most important thing in journalistic books. In my book I tried to be funny, which is always a risk. You have to be careful not to make cheap jokes about a very serious situation and it’s a fine line to tread between good and bad taste. I’ll leave it up to other people to decide whether I managed to do that or not.

To be honest, one of the reasons why I wrote the book the way I did was because when I came home people seemed genuinely curious to know what the basic things were like – the food, the people, the houses. It was different than if I’d been on a working trip to, say, Russia. I found that in answering those questions and telling my pub tales, as it were, the best material I had was the funny stuff. So I did not think I had the heart-rending anecdotes or, frankly, the literary ability to write a serious book.

But it’s a dark humour and it’s very effective. For example, when your translator tells you he has an ID card stating he is from a religious tribe and that it clearly commands the respect of other Iraqis, you ask him whether it’s better than having a gun. And he tells you very frankly that nothing is better than having a gun. Your book provides a lot of insight into some of the prevailing attitudes.

When I was kidnapped, I spent a lot of time laughing at how ludicrous the situation was to try to keep my spirits up, and I think people do the same thing during a war. But I should qualify that by saying that, at the end of the day, I was one of the lucky ones because nothing terribly traumatic happened to me. For a great number of people, mainly ordinary Iraqis, the whole thing offered very little to laugh at. It was just pure trauma. But as this was not the sort of thing that happened to me, and because I felt there were enough accounts that offered that perspective, I wrote a different type of book.

Books on serious subjects written with a sense of humour are more likely to be read by those who would not otherwise do so. And you can drip-feed information about the serious points. That can be a good alternative, and it goes against the presumption that a book about war reportage has to be, by definition, terribly serious.

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Colin Freeman

Colin Freeman is the Sunday Telegraph’s chief foreign correspondent. In August 2004 he was shot and assaulted by militia loyal to radical Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr in the city of Basra. In 2008, researching a story about piracy in Somalia, he was kidnapped by his own bodyguards.  He and a Spanish photographer spent six weeks in a cave before being released unharmed. In 2005, following his return from Iraq, Freeman wrote The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and Other Half-Truths from Baghdad.

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Colin Freeman

Colin Freeman is the Sunday Telegraph’s chief foreign correspondent. In August 2004 he was shot and assaulted by militia loyal to radical Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr in the city of Basra. In 2008, researching a story about piracy in Somalia, he was kidnapped by his own bodyguards.  He and a Spanish photographer spent six weeks in a cave before being released unharmed. In 2005, following his return from Iraq, Freeman wrote The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and Other Half-Truths from Baghdad.