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"BRITAIN SECRETLY helped to arm Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The facts about this were concealed until the Matrix Churchill trial took place." These are the first two sentences in David Leigh's Betrayed, one of two "instant" books to have appeared on Britain's arms-for-Iraq "scandal."

The second sentence of the second book, John Sweeney's Trading with the Enemy, explains that the work "is a story about a top secret trade so ugly that no cabinet minister cared to defend it."

With statements such as these, the two books conceal a scandal at least as big as any perpetrated by Whitehall: that up to the Gulf crisis the British media and parliamentary opposition were, with honourable exceptions (the Financial Times and, on occasion, the Observer), as content as the government to watch Baghdad expand its defence industries with British assistance.

Both these books stem from last year's trial of three former executives of Matrix Churchill, the Iraqi-owned British machine tool company which supplied scores of machines to Saddam's munitions plants. The trial collapsed when it emerged that ministers had colluded in the trade.

The simple truth, however, is that nothing of substance emerged during the trial which had not been on the public record for at least three years. That Britain had been helping Iraq build up its military machine was not a secret at all.

Iraq's clandestine procurement network and its activities - including its award of military-linked contracts to Matrix Churchill and other British and Western companies - were unravelled by the present writer in autumn 1989. Lengthy reports on the subject were carried in the specialist press, including The Middle East, The Engineer and Defence. Almost every British quality daily and Sunday paper was offered the story and turned it down.

It was the same with the supergun. The present writer prepared a report on the project (albeit minus its British elements) in early 1990 - several months before Customs seized the barrel sections at Teesside. The specialist press carried the story. To a man, the British quality newspapers were disinterested. "What you've got there is a rumour you can't stand up and no responsible journalist would wish to publish that", was the disdainful comment of a Sunday newspaper defence correspondent when offered the supergun scoop in February 1990.

In parliament, the opposition was much the same - and all this at a time when Saddam's nasty little habits gouging out the eyes of children as a means of forcing confessions from their parents, for example - were well documented.

All that said, both these books are well worthwhile, although they take very different tacks. Betrayed focusses on the Matrix Churchill trial, drawing extensively from the court testimony and from the mounds of juicy documents forced out of Whitehall by the defence. It is a rivetting read, especially for those who already have an interest in the subject.

The book suffers, however, from a lack of revelations; from an excessive reliance on information from the defence lawyers; and from some irritating errors. Why, for example, must Cedric Andrew, assistant chief investigation officer at Customs and Excise, repeatedly be referred to as a "Customs lawyer"?

Another flaw is a tendency to portray the three ex-Matrix men as the victims of a Whitehall machine desperate for scapegoats. Although their trial collapsed, students of the affair would do well to keep in mind that in the late 1980s, as their company's sales to Iraq boomed, the three businessmen knew exactly what they were doing.

John Sweeney's book is altogether more sophisticated. "This is a story not about lies and the art of lying but about the truth and the art of refining the truth," says the Introduction. "It is a story that turns on words and the twisting of words."

Precisely. The saga of British support for Saddam's defence build-up is not a crude tale of a government violating its arms embargo in the manner of Washington's Irangate. Rather, it is the story of how export guidelines were established which permitted London simultaneously to help Saddam and claim that it was doing nothing to fan the flames of conflict in the Gulf. Nothing lethal could be sold; and machine tools self-evidently are not lethal; so selling machines destined for the manufacture of artillery shells was not a violation of the embargo.

The guidelines were framed to accommodate London's hypocrisy; there was no need to violate them. The ultimate scandal was the guidelines. It is a profound point which comes across more clearly in Sweeney's book than in Leigh's.

Another strength of Trading with the Enemy is its repeated, often harrowing reminders of exactly why it was morally repugnant for Britain to have helped Saddam. In the end, after all, Britain's assistance to Saddam was a disgrace not because it was a geo-political error, or because he turned his guns against "our boys". It was outrageous because of the gassing of the Kurds, the torture of children, because of the sheer vileness of Saddam's regime.

In short, Sweeney's book is perhaps a better read, especially for those not already versed in Iraqi-British relations, although both should be on the shelves of specialists. What a pity, though, that neither addresses adequately the real scandal behind the Matrix Churchill story.
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Author:George, Alan
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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