BOOK REVIEW / Toys for the sand pit: 'Spider's Web: Bush, Saddam, Thatcher and the Decade of Deceit' - Alan Friedman: Faber, 17.50 pounds

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THERE can be few stranger experiences than reading a book whose chronology begins to intersect with 'real' time as you are actually reading it. This is what happened to me as I was ploughing through the exhaustive - but by no means exhausting - Spider's Web. As I got to the end of the book, which spans a 'decade of deceit', Baroness Thatcher took the stand at Lord Justice Scott's Arms for Iraq enquiry, and was subjected to a hail of close questioning by his more than able deputy, the feisty Ms Presiley Baxendale.

Thatcher's response to the accusation that she had known all along about British governmental involvement in the covert arming of Iraq (which continued right up until the start of Operation Desert Storm), was flannel, evasion, waffle and circumlocution. If she had admitted liability it would not necessarily have made any difference. Despite the Tories' alleged commitment to 'open government', ours remains a polity in which the mass not only accept a great deal of covert finangling on the part of the executive, but also accept the continuation of the 19th century's diplomatic 'Great Game': the use of state policy to facilitate commercial gain, and vice versa.

Clausewitz called war the extension of diplomacy by other means. In the case of our own country and period one might paraphrase his aphorism thus: war is the extension of arms sales by other means. Our GNP is massively dependent on arms sales; manufacturing death-dealing toys is something that we British are particularly good at. When Newsnight supremo Peter Snow hunkered down over his ridiculous sand pit in the run-up to Desert Storm, it was the toys, the techno-funk of the whole scene, that appeared to grab his - and our - imagination the most.

But really, there's nothing funky about cluster bombs: 4ft canisters that rotate as they fall, releasing a spray of bomblets that can eradicate all human life in an area the size of 10 football pitches; nor about supplying chemical weapons technology to a vicious dictator prepared to use it indiscriminately on civilians. What is more shocking is that we are unshocked by

the Arms for Iraq scandal, because we knew about it

all along.

If you cast your mind back: the nuclear triggers were seized at Heathrow before Desert Storm; Gerald Bull was assassinated before Desert Storm; the parts of his projected 'Super Gun', manufactured by Forgemasters in Sheffield, were grabbed by British Customs (poor saps) before the war.

So, it is perhaps not surprising that although Thatcher's name appears in the subtitle of this book, and there is some space devoted to the web of British Governmental companies - and companies such as Matrix Churchill which Friedman claims were staffed with MI6 placemen - involved in Iraq's covert arms procurement, Alan Friedman concentrates the bulk of his narrative on the American end of this odious policy, a devilish spawn of the 'special relationship'. Indeed, if there is any real contrast between the fundamental natures of British and American government, it is that whereas here we accept executive secrecy as a function of sovereignty residing in the legislature, in America it is accepted that sovereignty resides in the executive, and that, in theory, demands a commensurate level of openness and honesty in its dealings.

In this fat indictment of the American executive's actual dishonesty, Friedman has produced what can only be described as a masterly piece of investigative journalism. He has left no stone unturned; no relevant classified document unappendixed, no pertinent source uninterviewed. His yarning starts with the humble foot-soldiers, the CIA part-timers such as the Jordanian-born washing-machine salesman Fred Habaosh, who were used as cats' paws to push military hardware into Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. From there he moves into the centre of his spider's web, following the sticky filaments that connect these people to the Oval Office. He then moves out again, taking in such characters as Carlos Cardoen, the Chilean owner of a plant that Friedman says manufactured cluster bombs - or, in the charming euphemism of the techno-funksters, 'aerial denial ordnance' - for Saddam Hussein.

According to Friedman, Cardoen actually exported an entire, USA-made cluster bomb manufacturing installation to Iraq. He was also an associate of James Guerin, an ex-CIA operative whose arms production activities constituted an impressive spider's web of their own, and whose company, Matrix Churchill, caused financial ruin for Ferranti when they took it over. Friedman deftly exposes how the involvement of intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic made it possible for Guerin to pull off such an absurdly transparent financial scam.

It is in the financial scams underlying the Arms for Iraq scandal that Friedman finds most of the silk for his web. It was by cynically adopting an American government programme designed to fund credits for sales of agricultural products to the developing world that the Iraqis were supplied with the money to bankroll their extravagant arms habit. Billions of dollars of loans were channelled through an obscure branch of the Italian government's Banco di Lavorno in Atlanta, Georgia.

These stretched portions of the web drew the realpolitiking government of Italy - ever a helping hand to Washington - into the Grand Design. Friedman is never less than effortlessly discursive in portraying how veteran politicians such as Giullio Andreotti and Benito Craxi merely raised their shoulders in Latin shrugs and allowed the hypocritical

deficit-financing of the Western arms manufacturers to continue unabated.

But it is in his depiction of the little people that Friedman allows his emotions to come through: saps such as Christopher Drogoul, the branch manager of Banco di Lavorno in Atlanta, and the embittered Frank Machon, owner of a Glasgow-based trucking company used by MI6 to transport material to Iraq.

Perhaps it is with Machon, who, as early as December 1988, ingenuously wrote a letter to Margaret Thatcher detailing what he knew about MI6 complicity in arms supplies to Iraq, that Friedman most effectively stirs our latent anger. Machon is another Colin Wallace-type figure, an extreme British patriot who suffered commensurately extreme disillusionment when he realised how low Her Majesty's Government would stoop to conquer. Friedman claims that since Machon began to make noises about Iraq, the British Government has threatened his family, and used the pretext of claiming tax on monies he has never received for the very covert work itself to put him out of business.

Of course, Machon's plight is as nothing compared to the poor plastic Marsh Arabs, Kurds and Iraqi soldiers who were toppled over on the fringes of Peter Snow's sand pit, melted by British bombs and poisoned by British gas.

If I have any criticism of Friedman's book, it is that the density of the narrative and the sheer amount of material he has crammed into it sometimes make for confusing reading - I could have done with a cast list to refer to, as well as a list of relevant documents - but these are petty quibbles. Friedman has emphatically achieved what he set out to do. As evidence, consider the press release which accompanied my copy of the book: 'Last spring Friedman began receiving threatening phone calls at his New York flat. A research aide was then subjected to threats and suffered two break-ins at her flat before Friedman called for help from District Attorney Robert Morgenthau . . . (who) eventually spirited Friedman and his staff to a safe house in May, where they remained for a hundred days to complete the book.'

Now, that's what you get when you negotiate the spider's web as adroitly as Alan Friedman has done.