REPUBLIC OF FEAR

The Inside Story of Saddam's Iraq

By Samir al-Khalil

Pantheon. 310 pp. $12.95

Fear is sensory as well as psychological and its imprint on our fragile beings can be long-lasting. It may be difficult for Americans, however, and for Westerners in general, to comprehend the fear of violence in their political lives as citizens.

This is why the Arab scholar writing under the pen name Samir al-Khalil -- out of fear -- has provided a great service in exploring the roots of violence in Iraqi society under its fearsome dictator, Saddam Hussein.

It is all too easy in the din of war that now exists to paint Saddam as Hitler, or as an Orwellian nightmare who crept up on Western civilization like the thief of Baghdad loaded with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a million-man army. But cross-cultural and bumper-sticker comparisons are for journalists and politicians. Al-Khalil makes an academic attempt to explain how Saddam emerged as the cruel and austere conqueror on the eastern flank of the Arab nation, seeking a manifest destiny for Iraq and some unifying brand of pan-Arabism that could condone what is now being played out in the Kuwaiti desert.

Al-Khalil's exposition takes us on a tour of Saddam's political precursors and heroes who toiled in the shadows of Ottoman, British and French colonialism. Chief among them was the towering radical pamphleteer Michel Aflaq, who provided the ideological and intellectual justification for the violence that attended the rise of Saddam's Arab Baath Socialist Party.

Aflaq, writing in 1959, foreshadows the torture and hostage-taking beamed to us from Iraq and Kuwait today: "In this struggle, we restrain our love for all. When we are cruel to others, we know that our cruelty is in order to bring them back to their true selves, of which they are ignorant. Their potential will, which has not been clarified yet, is with us, even when their swords are drawn against us."

Though Saddam rules in Iraq as head of the Revolutionary Command Council, no revolution or mass movement actually instilled his regime with legitimacy, as the revolution in Iran gave legitimacy to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The phenomenon of Saddam and the Baath results from clever propaganda and relentless organization, carried out by a political party that invaded the Arab family structure and supplanted traditional patriarchy with a leader who crafted a workable -- if detestable -- social contract with his people. It is enforced by fear and violence, but also suffused with promises of education, development, prosperity and Arab destiny.

In fact, Baathism is less corrupt than some of the conservative sheikhdoms in the Arab gulf whose leaders now wonder aloud how they could have lived next to this monster for so long. But for the poor and backward masses of Iraq, Saddam's social contract has held out some measure of promise.

In the role he fashioned for himself, Saddam is Iraq's patriarch, attested to by the millions of billboards, posters, portraits -- even watch faces -- that stare paternally upon the citizenry at every hour of the day from every direction. Saddam seized this role through the use of violence and party organization, the opposite process that brought a violent regime to power in neighboring Iran. Iran's revolution was built from below, where Khomeini tapped the religious fury of the mustazapheen, or dispossessed, and swept aside a 2,500-year-old monarchy. "The Baath never built upon this kind of mass experience of revolution, and so they had to instill from above through institutions and organization that which came naturally to Khomeini from below," al-Khalil writes.

Saddam's Baathism is less ideological than it is pragmatic. As al-Khalil tells us, Baathism serves up a hodgepodge of ideology that creates a set of parochial social myths, blends them with a xenophobic distrust of foreigners and Fifth Column enemies serving the old colonial interests; it borrows socialist slogans from the left and draws on the energy generated from these "threats" and "ideals" to get society moving in a productive direction charted -- always -- by the leader, Saddam.

The organizing principle of "Republic of Fear" is the cartography of organized violence in Iraq -- how Saddam co-opted his entire population to participate in the violence of the party and the dreaded secret police apparatus. The author said he would explain how ordinary people could be seduced into practicing torture on their brethren. But while al-Khalil doesn't fulfill this promise, he assembles and discusses with clarity a formidable history of Baathist development from which the reader can learn much about Saddam and the culture of violence over which he presides.

The reviewer is currently on assignment for The Washington Post in the Persian Gulf.