Interview: Con Coughlin Discusses His New Book, 'Saddam: King Of Terror'

All Things Considered: November 8, 2002

Saddam Hussein Biography

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

If anyone expects Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein, they ought to take this guidance from British journalist Con Coughlin, who's written a new book about the Iraqi dictator: Make sure Iraqis see victory over him as an absolute certainty because if a plot against him fails, one thing is certain--the plotters would be killed or tortured, or see their families killed or tortured.

Saddam Hussein emerges from Coughlin's book, "King of Terror," as just that--a man whose career has been drenched in violence and hatred, even from childhood. The strongest influence on that childhood, Coughlin argues, his mentor, Khayrallah.

Mr. CON COUGHLIN (Author, "Saddam: King of Terror"): Saddam's father left the family home in somewhat mysterious circumstances when Saddam was quite young, and he was essentially brought up by his maternal uncle, Khayrallah Tulfa, who had been jailed during the Second World War by the British for being a Nazi. In later life, Khayrallah demonstrated his Nazi sympathies when he produced a pamphlet roughly entitled Three Whom God Despises--Jews, Persians and Flies(ph). In this document, he actually argued that of all these three, flies were the most noble.

SIEGEL: This was not an Anwar Sadat, the old Egyptian president's story of someone who said, `The enemy of my enemy is my friend. I'll be anti-British, therefore pro-German,' in the '40s. He was a believing Nazi, the man who was essentially a father figure to Saddam Hussein.

Mr. COUGHLIN: Precisely, yeah. There's no doubt that he--all his life he had Nazi sympathies and he was also a very, very committed Iraqi nationalist.

SIEGEL: Saddam Hussein makes his career, the story has been told elsewhere, now in very great detail in your book, as a thug. He is an assassin from the word `go.'

Mr. COUGHLIN: Saddam started life basically as a street tough, and actually there are many parallels between Saddam's rise to glory and that of a mafiosi, really. He committed his first murder at the age of 20 at the behest of his Nazi-sympathizing uncle, Khayrallah. Fairly shortly after that, he was brought into the Ba'ath Party. In those days, the members were mostly lawyers and doctors and professional people. But in Arab politics, you have to control the streets, and they needed somebody like Saddam on the streets of Baghdad to get their message across and also to take on the other political groups, such as the Communists, jockeying for position.

SIEGEL: How do you--as a journalist writing a book about Saddam Hussein in an era when there is a countdown to war with him, or at very least when you began the project there were sanctions against his country and an resolved war, many of the sources you talk to are former opponents who are now dissidents and who would like to see him overthrown.

Mr. COUGHLIN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: How do you filter out fact from the case, from the argument that these people have against him, from the action that they want to see taken?

Mr. COUGHLIN: Well, it's not easy. I'd be the first to admit that. The Iraqi opposition is full of the most lurid stories about Saddam, many of which I haven't included in the book because frankly I don't believe them. As a trained journalist, there are ways...

SIEGEL: It's not to say this is a bedtime story that you're left with after excluding those. No.

Mr. COUGHLIN: No, no. The thing is that there are known facts about Saddam. First of all, there are ways for a journalist to check out whether somebody is legitimate and authentic. There are many governments that have been watching Saddam very closely and many intelligence services that have monitored the Iraqi regime, and there are known facts. I mean, we know that he committed his first murder. I was able to lay my hands on the court documents. We know that he purged the party. I was able to see for myself the awfully gruesome footage that was filmed of the purge being carried out with Saddam sitting on the dais smoking a big, fat Cuban cigar while his colleagues were led off to the firing squads.

And so I've concentrated on what is known and where, as far as possible, one can check it out. There might be the odd embellishment in the book. I've tried as best I can to keep it balanced. And, for example, I have a whole chapter in the book, how Saddam built modern Iraq using the oil revenues to improve housing, roads and electricity. And I did set out four years ago to write a proper, balanced account of his life. Unfortunately, it's not too long before you find yourself dealing with the rather gruesome tales of what's taken place in the torture chambers with the firing squads, weapons of mass destruction, etc.

SIEGEL: Con Coughlin, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. COUGHLIN: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Con Coughlin, who is executive editor of the London Sunday Telegraph, is the author of "Saddam: King of Terror."

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