In This Review

State of Repression: Iraq Under Saddam Hussein
State of Repression: Iraq Under Saddam Hussein
By Lisa Blaydes
Princeton University Press, 2018, 376 pp

In 1989, the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya published Republic of Fear, a terrifying look at Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s violent, totalitarian rule. Ever since, the world has recognized that Saddam was no run-of-the-mill autocrat. In this carefully structured analysis, Blaydes draws on Iraqi secret police files to argue that Saddam, brutal as he was, was trapped by Iraq’s unique characteristics into adopting repressive but self-destructive policies. The key problem, Blaydes suggests, was that language, geography, and other barriers made it dicult for the regime to “read” some groups within Iraqi society. The authorities knew the least about the Shiites and the Kurds. Those groups were subjected to collective punishment, resulting in collective resistance. Repression was more finely targeted when it came to the Sunnis. Those closest to Saddam’s birthplace of Tikrit were rewarded, whereas more peripheral Sunnis were deprived and grew resentful as a result. Yet the idea that Saddam’s exceptional brutishness resulted from Iraq’s exceptional complexity is not entirely convincing. Iran, Lebanon, and Syria are just as complex as Iraq, after all, but have vastly dierent regimes.