Charles Tripp has used his in-depth knowledge of Iraq's history and politics to produce a superb and very accessible analysis. Here is the result of serious scholarship and historical understanding distilled in a way that leaves this book's sensationalist rivals far behind.
Tripp shows how Saddam Hussein's politics derive not just from his own make-up but from a tradition in Iraq politics going back to the creation of the state in 1920. Throughout, a small Sunni Arab elite, and in particular the nationalist military officers among them, have been attempting to weld the British creation called 'Iraq' into a strong state. Thoughout, they were faced by the fundamental insecurity of the state and of their own regime. The way they dealt with this was to attempt to impose their own vision of the strong state they pursued, on the rest of society. Throughout also, they were prepared to use violence to do so, and to defend themseves from real or perceived challengers. Saddam has been more effective at this, and more brutal, than his predecessors.
In the process, Tripp shows, Iraqi society (tribes, Shi'ites, Kurds) has in many ways adapted to this pattern: groups and elites adjusted their strategies of survival, and of obtaining resources from the state, accordingly. At the same time, though, these regimes' use of violence and playing off various sections of the population against each other - in attempting to strengthen the state - reduced the chance of creating a cohesive Iraqi national identity, and genuine legitimacy for the regime. The indirect result, therefore, was a failure to achieve the original aim.
Of course, all such regimes and the groups suporting them also developed their own particular interests, material or otherwise, and all used patronage as well as fear to maintain their power base. Saddam Hussein's regime is merely the latest, and extreme, version of these patterns.
A review can't do this subject justice; read the book!