OUT OF THE ASHES

The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein

By Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn

HarperCollins. 322 pp. $26

SADDAM'S SECRETS

The Hunt for Iraq's Hidden Weapons

By Tim Trevan

HarperCollins. 448 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Reviewed by John Prados

Among American frustrations in the world events of the past few years, one of the greatest must be the failure to track down and dispose of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, along with the means for making them. That, and the continued reign of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, rankle in the land that was leader of the multinational coalition that fought Iraq in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991. Though the coalition achieved its proximate aim of reversing the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, the UN resolution that sanctioned an end to hostilities provided for Iraq to be deprived of its most dangerous weaponry, and that has not happened. Meanwhile many, not least then-president George Bush, hoped that defeat would lead to the overthrow of Saddam -- and that, too, did not occur. Here we have a pair of books that help explain how, if not why, the high expectations of 1991 came to naught.

Patrick Cockburn, a Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times and London Independent, was among the small cadre of Western journalists who stayed in Baghdad through the Gulf War. He returned later to report on the impact of UN sanctions on Iraq as well as political events in that country. Cockburn watched as the Iraqi dinar, which traded at one to $3.20 before the war, fell to 2,550 to the dollar five years later. He watched as the Iraqi government tried to compensate for its inability to deliver goods by stoking fires of religious fervor, clamping down on such cosmopolitanism as there was in Baghdad society. To tell the Iraqi story at length, Patrick teamed up with his brother Andrew, a videojournalist and author (One Point Safe), who has long had an interest in U.S. military and intelligence matters. The result is Out of the Ashes, the most detailed look available at what has happened in post-Gulf War Iraq.

Perhaps because Iraqis are more willing to talk to Englishmen than Americans, or because of the locus of the anti-Saddam opposition in London, or because of Patrick Cockburn's contacts in Baghdad, Out of the Ashes brings light to a political system that most American writing leaves shrouded in darkness. The revolts of some army units, of Shia Muslims, and of the Kurdish ethnic minority that took place in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War emerge in clear relief. According to this account, the forces loyal to Saddam were down to two days' supply of ammunition when the last of the rebellions was quelled. Equally disturbing, Iraqi generals may in fact have been planning a military coup against Saddam that was short-circuited by the other revolts. An abortive later uprising by portions of Saddam's personal guard proved to be a special upset to the Iraqi dictator but never had much chance. The nearly successful assassination attempt against Saddam's son Uday, which gravely wounded him in December 1996, is traced not to some tribal conspiracy but to the urban elite of Baghdad, a group who created a revolutionary movement called the Awakening, modeled upon the Latin American urban guerrillas of the 1960s.

The United States shows poorly in much of this history. President Bush encouraged Saddam's opposition, and then the United States stood aside during Baghdad's ruthless repression after the war. Bush approved CIA covert action against Saddam, which President Clinton pursued, but both paid little attention as the CIA effort muddled on. With myopic focus on the mullahs in Teheran as troublemakers, assistant secretary of state John Kelly is quoted as saying, upon meeting an Iraqi opposition leader in London, "How long have you been working for the government of Iran?" The CIA operation itself seems to have been crippled by divided opinion among agency managers, differing emphases by assorted CIA components, and field officers exceeding their authority, all coupled with the shifting allegiances and essential powerlessness of the Iraqi opposition elements. One CIA officer among the Kurds, if this account is accurate, almost single-handedly instigated the 1996 uprising that split the Kurds, resulted in an alliance between Saddam and one Kurdish faction with previous ties to the CIA, and dramatically increased Iraq's confidence in its ability to obstruct the UN disarmament program.

Possibly the most significant weakness in this book lies in its coverage of the inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission, which since 1991 has had responsibility for ridding Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. Here we are fortunate in having Tim Trevan's Saddam's Secrets. A British technical specialist and diplomat, Trevan served as special adviser to the head of UNSCOM from January 1992 to October 1995, which now appears to be the period in which the inspectors achieved their greatest successes. Saddam's Secrets provides a virtual play-by-play recounting, from the initial inspection of the Iraqi site at Salman Pak, which engendered strong suspicion that Baghdad had had much larger programs than anyone had suspected, to 1998, when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to get UNSCOM back into Baghdad, negotiated an arrangement with Iraq that Trevan argues put UNSCOM, not Iraq, on trial. Along the way we see numerous Iraqi prevarications and steadily increasing efforts to obstruct the UN inspectors. Frustrated by the relentlessly vague recollections of Iraqi scientists about programs they conducted or managed, Trevan writes that it was "the most extraordinary case of collective amnesia I have ever witnessed."

Readers may remember the notorious September 1991 incident in which Iraqi troops held UN inspectors at gunpoint in a parking lot for four days. Trevan's inside account of this episode is eye-opening: UNSCOM's team did succeed in smuggling key documents out with a specialist who had to be evacuated for medical reasons. One of them revealed Iraqi progress on an implosion-type atomic bomb shortly before the Gulf War.

In their less detailed passages on UNSCOM, the Cockburn brothers seem ambivalent toward Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish diplomat who headed UNSCOM through 1997. Trevan makes crystal clear, however that by dint of very careful play of UN resolutions and his other slim resources, Ekeus forced Iraq to acquiesce in monitoring arrangements and inspection methods it tried hard to avoid. There are other differences as well. An Iraqi general who defected apparently told the Cockburns that Saddam had been about to put chemical warheads on his missiles when his war with Iran ended in 1989, while Trevan reports the same general as saying that Saddam would never have dared to employ either chemical or biological weapons in the Gulf War two years later.

In many ways Trevan's book, a workmanlike account of a key disarmament process, is a primer on proliferation issues in the new world order. The Cockburn brothers show the political forces swirling around the weapons programs. These visions are complementary and well worth the attention of readers concerned with the central problems in American policy today.

John Prados is a historian of national security affairs and research fellow of the National Security Archive. His most recent book is "The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War."

CAPTION: A street vendor in Baghdad before a poster of Saddam Hussein