Disputed Iraqi Archives Find a Home at the Hoover Institution

January 23, 2008

Two shipping containers' worth of records created by Iraq's Baath Party that have been stored on an American naval facility for the past 21 months are about to find a new home at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank and library affiliated with Stanford University.

Hoover signed a deal on Monday with the Iraq Memory Foundation—a private, nonprofit group that has had custody of the documents since just after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003—for the transfer of about seven million pages of records and other artifacts from Saddam Hussein's tenure as Iraqi president. The deal came despite recent impassioned calls from Iraq's national archivist for the collections' immediate repatriation back to Baghdad.

Saad Eskander, the director general of the Iraq National Library and Archive, argues that the records of the Baath Party—which ruled Iraq from 1968 to 2003—are inalienable public property and belong in the national archive without delay.

Officials of the Iraq Memory Foundation say they received the blessing of Iraq's deputy prime minister and of the prime minister's office to carry out the deal with Hoover.

According to the terms of the deal, Hoover has agreed to hold the records for the foundation for the next five years. At the end of that period, the two parties will examine the possibility of repatriating the documents to Iraq.

"It is essential that these documents be back among the Iraqi people," Kanan Makiya, founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation and an Iraqi-born professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis University, said in a recent interview with The Chronicle. "But," he added, "Baghdad is just not ready for it."

Richard Sousa, a senior associate director at the Hoover Institution, said the California library had received several pieces of correspondence between the Iraqi state and the Memory Foundation which showed that "this is something the government wanted them to do—to save [the documents] and hold them as a service to the government."

Hoover's library and archives specialize in preserving documents of "political transformation," many of them from the cold war. "We have pages from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Chiang Kai-shek diaries," said Mr. Sousa. "This is right down our alley."

Scanning and Searching

Mr. Makiya was among the most influential proponents of the humanitarian argument for war in Iraq. He first rose to prominence among Iraqi exiles and American foreign-policy hands after publishing a book called Republic of Fear in 1989, under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil. That book quickly became a best-selling primer on the atrocities of life under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. More recently, Mr. Makiya has enjoyed extensive connections in the Bush administration and in the upper echelons of the new Iraqi government.

The Iraq Memory Foundation, which was formed in 2003, grew out of another project Mr. Makiya founded, the Iraq Research and Documentation Project, which was based at Harvard University.

Mr. Makiya and others from the foundation discovered the disputed documents in a labyrinthine network of basement rooms under the Baath Party's regional headquarters in Baghdad in the early days of April 2003, just after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Mr. Makiya says he received permission from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government in place at the time, to move the records to his parents' home in Baghdad, a building inside the city's heavily protected Green Zone that subsequently became the foundation's office in Iraq.

The Iraq Memory Foundation then began the slow process of electronically scanning the records and organizing them into a digital collection, with the hope of setting up a memorial documentation center similar to Germany's archive of records from the Stasi, the former East German secret police.

According to Hassan Mneimneh, director of the Iraq Memory Foundation's documentation project, the group reached an agreement with the U.S. military in February 2005 to have the documents shipped to the United States, where government contractors would complete the digitizing process at a much faster rate. That agreement also provided for the U.S. government to keep a digital copy of the collection.

The digitization process wrapped up in September of that year. Convinced that Baghdad remains too unsafe to house the records, the foundation has combed the United States for a place to house, preserve, and restore the sizable collection of paper records. Monday's deal with Hoover marks an end to that search.

Law and Disorder

In handling the documents in his possession, Mr. Makiya says, he has received letters of clearance from high-level Iraqi officials at every step along the way—including the transfer of the documents to Hoover.

That does not satisfy Mr. Eskander, of the Iraq National Library and Archive. He cites Iraqi laws passed in 1963 and 1983, as well as international law (both The Hague and Geneva Conventions regard documents as part of a nation's cultural heritage), to bolster his assertion that the Iraq Memory Foundation's possession of the documents is "illegal."

Mr. Makiya "is not under the supervision of the Iraqi state," Mr. Eskander said in a recent phone interview from Baghdad. "He just represents himself."

"He cannot decide alone where to store them," added Mr. Eskander, speaking about the Baath records. "They are our documents—the documents of the Iraqi people."

Like Mr. Makiya, Mr. Eskander returned to Iraq in 2003 after years in exile to take part in rebuilding the country. Since then, he has won the admiration and support of a number of American and British archivists and scholars, largely for his work extensively rehabilitating and modernizing the National Library and Archive against all the odds of recent life in Baghdad.

One prominent figure who has been impressed by Mr. Eskander is Trudy Huskamp Peterson, a former acting archivist of the United States under President Bill Clinton and an international archival consultant. Ms. Peterson believes the National Library and Archive should be the ultimate home of the documents, and she stands by the recommendations of the International Council on Archives, a professional group, which state that "the alienation of public archives can ... only occur through a legislative act of the state"—not with a letter from a high executive office.

However, Ms. Peterson says, the violence and insecurity in Baghdad may be good reasons to keep the records out of Iraq for now. Her biggest worry is that Mr. Makiya and Mr. Eskander have neither spoken nor met with each other over the dispute.

"These people have gotten so far apart that they can't even talk on the same page," she said in a recent interview. "My bottom line here is we need to open this discussion."

Political Ammunition

Such strong disagreements over the documents now bound for Hoover may only be a prelude to more wrangling over Iraq's political and cultural heritage.

In the chaos immediately following the invasion, the fallen regime's records were scooped up by various parties all over the city. Some of those people were good Samaritans working to preserve the historical record. Others were opportunists hoping to exploit that record. And many were American soldiers.

By all accounts, the largest collection of Baath-era documents resides not with Mr. Eskander or Mr. Makiya, but with the U.S. Department of Defense.

During the 2003 invasion, American forces gathered between 43,000 and 48,000 boxes of Iraqi state documents, according to U.S. government estimates, which were then used as fodder for the investigation by the Iraq Survey Group. That entity was charged with determining whether Saddam Hussein had maintained stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Its final report, released in September 2004, found that Iraq had terminated its nuclear-weapons program in 1991.

According to Mr. Mneimneh, the U.S. government's collection amounts to about 100 million pages. That's about 20 shipping containers' worth of documents, as compared with the two going to Hoover.

Mr. Makiya and Mr. Eskander have both argued that those documents belong in Iraqi hands. Mr. Makiya has urged the Pentagon to turn them over to the Iraq Memory Foundation. Mr. Eskander has demanded that they be restored to Iraq's National Library and Archive.

A large but unknown number of Baath records are still at large in Baghdad, many of them in the hands of political parties. Those documents, like the ones discovered and kept by the Iraq Memory Foundation, carry the aura of traumatic memories for Iraq's citizens.

They also carry ample political ammunition against anyone who might be implicated in them.

In Republic of Fear, Mr. Makiya described Iraq under the Baath regime as a nation where "the ideal citizen became an informer." Complicity in the crimes of the old regime, he says, is widespread among ordinary Iraqis. And political parties are eager to find evidence against their opponents.

It is that powerful appetite for Baath records in Baghdad, Mr. Makiya says, that makes him reluctant to send the Iraq Memory Foundation's collection back there.

He says he may one day happily pass the documents on to Mr. Eskander and the National Library and Archive. But first he wants to see Iraq's parliament pass a law that protects the holders of Baath documents from political pressure—and that protects the privacy of those named in them.

"It's not his good intentions that I'm worried about," says Mr. Makiya, speaking of Mr. Eskander. "It's his bosses'."

Mr. Eskander, however, says he does indeed worry about the intentions of Mr. Makiya, whom he sees as a political operator without clear accountability.

Mr. Eskander has also pushed for an act of parliament that will set protocols for dealing with sensitive Baath-era records. But his priority is to get them to Iraq—and out of private hands.