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Now, Biographer's Life Is All About Hussein's

WAR WITH IRAQ / THE MEDIA

April 03, 2003|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

As allied forces close in on Baghdad, the questions are thrown insistently at Con Coughlin, now the most sought-after biographer of Saddam Hussein: What has become of the Iraqi leader? And what is he thinking?

This week, following mounting speculation that Hussein might have been seriously injured or even killed in the opening salvos of the war, Coughlin has been in particular demand, up regularly before 4 a.m. in London for live TV interviews, staying up late for consecutive chats with hosts on CNN, CBS and NBC. He's fielded calls from journalists in Japan, India and South Africa.

Coughlin, 48, executive editor of the Sunday Telegraph newspaper and author of "Saddam: King of Terror," believes that Hussein was injured, but not critically, after the U.S. launched cruise missiles and bombs at a compound in the capital where Hussein and his sons were believed to be hiding.

Now, Coughlin believes, Hussein most likely is "keeping his head down" out of fear he'll be more easily targeted by the U.S. if he makes a public appearance. Hussein, who is well known for obsessive security measures, surely was rattled by being so accurately targeted in the first strike, Coughlin said.

"I think the most significant thing about the initial attack on his bunker is that it would have demonstrated to Saddam that either there was a traitor within the inner circle of his regime or that American intelligence had a fantastic ability to penetrate his security apparatus," Coughlin said in a phone interview from London. "And I think that actually would have been more of a shock to Saddam than the injuries. For 30 years, what kept him in power is his security apparatus. If that is being compromised, that is really serious."

Hussein cultivates his elite security force through special treatment. His Special Security Organization guards get a new car every six months, usually a Mercedes, according to Coughlin, and most earn twice the salary of Iraqi cabinet ministers.

Coughlin, who has covered the Middle East for 20 years, is good-natured about his fourth interview of the day and points out, a bit gleefully, that he couldn't even get American publishers interested in his book a couple of years ago. "The tenor of the rejection letters was, 'Nobody is interested.' 'Who cares?' " Coughlin has written two other books, "Hostage," an account of the hostage crisis in Lebanon in the late '80s, and "A Golden Basin Full of Scorpions: The Quest for Modern Jerusalem."

He began writing "Saddam" in 1998 on the basis of exclusive interviews with people who have been part of Hussein's inner circle -- contacts he made while covering the Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- including former generals, bodyguards and childhood friends. After the attacks of Sept. 11, interest in the Middle East heightened and a slew of new books on the region and its leaders have been released, including others on Hussein. "Saddam," one of the latest, has gone into its seventh printing since its release in November by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.

In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly said Coughlin "has assembled a timely, detailed portrait of the Iraqi dictator -- though not one that fully supports the subtitle's implied link to Al Qaeda.... Still, readers looking for a biography of Iraq's strongman will need to look no further."

The Los Angeles Times review said Coughlin used "the reminiscences of former Baathists who once worked closely with Hussein, to present an engrossing account of how this semi-educated peasant boy advanced to power through the blood-stained shoals of Iraqi revolutionary politics."

And so, as the war in Iraq intensifies, journalists have turned to Coughlin for his thoughts on everything from Hussein's whereabouts to his psyche.

This week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld emphasized that Hussein and his two sons have not been seen since that first bunker assault, pointing out that Hussein did not show up for a live TV speech Tuesday as scheduled. Also, U.S. intelligence officials have noted, Iraq's defense minister recently was seen with a man believed to be Hussein's longtime bodyguard. That a bodyguard appeared to have left the Iraqi president's side raised further speculation.

Coughlin, though, is convinced that Hussein remains in charge. Hussein, he said, has "a feral instinct for survival. The bottom line with Saddam is so long as he's in power, and so long as he still has the country fighting for him, he's happy...."

In fact, Coughlin thinks Hussein is probably pleased with the growing international opposition to the war and the questions arising over how it is being fought. "Saddam would be sitting there thinking, 'Wow, I never thought it would go this well.' "

Coughlin's biography paints a by-now-familiar picture of a paranoid, cruel leader:

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