Because Iraq has been not just a country over the past few decades but more a vivid symbol of global power politics, its study has been grossly loaded.
As a symbol, Iraq has been used by each political camp to justify its position: the details of global politics played out there have been tortured into partisan paradigms. For example, at opposite ends of today's political spectrum Saddam Hussein's horrendous infringements of human rights have been used by the pro-war lobby as proof of the civilising geopolitical policy of the US, while Osama bin Laden has used US-brokered sanctions as proof of the West's crusade against Islam. Both positions are, of course, ludicrous - sanctions and Saddam's atrocities are little more than facts (albeit facts with tragic consequences) of recent history.
Comment on Iraq - interest-led and political - has read much more into the country than it should have. Its dominant feature has been not lies but morally weighted exaggeration.
Dilip Hiro's Iraq: A Report from the Inside - sober, accessible, almost anonymous - is therefore most notable for what it lacks.
Hiro provides neither much original research nor flamboyant insight. His Iraq, however, is one of the most balanced and nuanced general accounts of the country available. There is no morality in history, something most books on Iraq tend to forget. Hiro's account is characterised both by an absence of moral judgement and a determined attempt to steer his readers towards a similar stance. He avoids, for example, any gory descriptions of Saddam's brand of tyranny (and there are enough chronicled instances to flood the Hague for years) because he is aware of the heavy political and moral weight such descriptions carry. His analysis of the impact of the Palestine-Israel crisis on Iraqi history is refreshingly good precisely because he treats the conflict as a fact of current affairs rather than (like almost everyone else) as grist to his own ideological mill.
Hiro's disenchanted cynicism as regards political motive is, unfortunately, ideally suited to his subject. Saddam's career was defined by opportunism, his rise to power and grasp of it characterised by a relentless lack of scruples but more by a perfect sense of timing. The reasons for US wrangling in the country bear almost no relation to the rhetoric of those responsible for it (in a 9,000-word speech about Iraq to the Senate Armed Services Committee last September, US secretary of state for defense Donald Rumsfeld never once mentioned oil). And the exiled opposition parties have, for the most part, been slippery fish with scarce political integrity.
Hiro, unlike so many, remains perfectly unfazed.
Short-term financial and political interests have governed much of the decision-making of the prime players in the Iraqi saga. But they have not been the whole story. Hiro's Iraq is structured thematically: he covers the Baath party, Iraq's regional role and oil in separate sections, which allows him to unpack trends rather than chase the haphazard rapid fire of recent Iraqi chronology. Interests have remained consistent but so has the trend of Iraq-US relations over the past 20 years: a circular game of cat and mouse characterised on the one hand by shocking US intelligence failures, and on the other by Saddam's criminal disregard for his people's suffering. That game has changed, but the political symbolism of Iraq has grown only as a result. In the wash of speculation that is following the US-led invasion, Hiro's unassuming book will remain a rock of informed and impartial historical comment.
Turi Munthe is a publisher and writer specialising in the Arab world.
Iraq: A Report from the Inside
Author - Dilip Hiro
ISBN - 1 86207 6 8
Publisher - Granta
Price - £8.99
Pages - 1