|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] the crimes of Iraq - which lead to our invasion
WSJ News Exclusive | Baath Party Archives Return to Iraq, With the
Secrets They Contain
Michael R. Gordon
As looters tore through Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003,
Kanan Makiya heard they were heading toward a memorial for a founder of
the political organization that produced Saddam Hussein and became a
major force of disruption in the Middle East.
He and Mustafa al-Kadhimi, both human-rights activists, raced to the
building, where they discovered a trove of official records in a
waterlogged basement that provided an inside look at the Baath Party.
Now, Mr. Kadhimi is Iraq’s prime minister. Mr. Makiya is living in
And the archive, which was removed by the U.S. for safekeeping as
violence spiraled in the Iraqi capital 15 years ago, has been sent back
to Baghdad in secret.
A U.S. military cargo plane stuffed with more than six million pages of
documents that hold the secrets of Iraq’s dictatorial past, including
the names of Baath Party members and informants, landed at the Baghdad
A U.S. military helicopter as it flew over Baghdad in April 2003, after
the U.S.-led invasion.
Photo: Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press
The trove was once envisioned as a historical resource for the Iraqi
people and a way to move toward reconciliation of the deep divisions in
Iraqi society. For now, however, the archive has become such a sensitive
issue in the fraught situation in Baghdad that it will initially be kept
under lock and key.
“Our hope is that we will be able to set up the appropriate
institutional structure where these documents will be available to the
public, particularly researchers to help educate all of us about the
horrors of the Baathist regime,” said an Iraqi official in Baghdad.
Michel Aflaq, a founder of the Baath movement. Piles of documents were
found at a shrine to him in 2003.
Photo: Claude Salhani/Sygma/Getty Images
“We want this to be a learning moment, not a moment of revenge,” the
Iraqi official added. “Doing this sort of setup may take some time.”
In the early months after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam
Hussein, Mr. Makiya hoped that such a learning moment would have been
closer at hand. Born in Baghdad, Mr. Makiya went to the U.S. in 1967 to
study math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But after Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, Mr. Makiya soon became one
of the most prominent chroniclers of the Iraqi dictator’s abuses. After
writing under a pseudonym during the 1980s, he ventured into northern
Iraq in 1991 with the help of Kurdish rebels to film a documentary about
the regime’s atrocities, basing it in part on a separate trove of
captured Baath Party records, which were later brought to the U.S.
A supporter of the U.S. invasion, Mr. Makiya returned to Baghdad in the
early weeks of the occupation with the vision of founding the Iraq
Memory Foundation, which would document the nation’s experience with
Some of the documents in Baghdad, before the archive was shipped to the U.S.
Photo: Iraq Memory Foundation
That, he thought, would enable the new Iraq to investigate war crimes
and perhaps extend amnesty to repentant perpetrators—much as had been
done by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end
of apartheid. Mr. Kadhimi became the head of the foundation’s Baghdad
The Baath Party was founded in the 1940s as a secular pan-Arab movement.
Saddam Hussein joined the organization in 1957 and used the party to
impose his iron will on the country after he came to power.
As the Iraqi capital was convulsed by looting in 2003, Mr. Makiya heard
that a crowd was converging on a memorial for Michel Aflaq, a Syrian who
was one of the founders of the Baath movement. Toward the end of a
tumultuous career, Mr. Aflaq was the nominal head of the Baath Party in
Iraq, and after his death a political shrine was established in his
honor, including a statue and a library of his writings.
Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1980. He used the Baath Party to impose his
will on Iraq.
Photo: Zuheir Saade/Associated Press
After arriving at the scene with Mr. Kadhimi, Mr. Makiya uncovered piles
of mysterious documents in the basement, which also ran underneath an
adjacent Baath Party headquarters. To the two activists, it was like
finding the Stasi records after the collapse of Communist power in East
With the approval of the U.S. occupation authority, Mr. Makiya had the
documents moved to his family’s former home in Baghdad, which served as
the home of his foundation. There, he worked with Mr. Kadhimi and a
small group of volunteers to catalog and scan the archive, which
contained party personnel records, internal correspondence, lists of
informants and even a record of Iraqi families whose sons had been
captured in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. (The party was concerned the
families’ loyalties might be suspect.)
The archive was enormous, mortars landed near the house and Mr. Makiya’s
team received death threats. As sectarian violence in the capital began
to rise, the researchers grew concerned the archive could be destroyed
or be captured by former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime,
Iranian-backed Shiite extremists or militants from al Qaeda in Iraq.
“It gradually became clear that Iraq was not ready for a memory project
like ours,” Mr. Makiya said. “The past was not really yet in the past
and was still being lived.”
Kanan Makiya in 2003. He worked with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, now Iraq’s
prime minister, and volunteers to catalog and scan some of the over
Photo: Manish Swarup/Associated Press
Seeking to protect the cache, Mr. Makiya went to Paul Wolfowitz, then
the top policy official at the Pentagon, and an agreement was struck in
February 2005 for the documents to be shipped to the U.S., where they
were initially kept in West Virginia. There, a Pentagon contractor hired
local residents to organize and digitize them with the help of the
foundation’s Arabic-speaking researchers. Some U.S. officials thought
the material might provide clues about the budding insurgency in Iraq,
but Mr. Makiya saw the removal as a way to preserve the archive.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
Do you expect Baath Party members and informants named in the archives
to be protected from retribution or blackmail 17 years later? Why, or
why not? Join the conversation below.
Eventually, the archive was sent to the Hoover Institution, a
conservative-leaning think tank at Stanford University in California.
Access to the documents has been closely supervised; none of the
documents are posted online and researchers need to agree not to
distribute personal information about ordinary Iraqis.
“The documents are invaluable sources for Iraqi scholars, but it is also
important that this material not fall into the wrong hands, including
those that could use it for political retribution,” said Michael Brill,
a graduate student at Princeton University who has studied the archive.
Even so, the archive has been engulfed in controversy. A director of the
Iraq National Library and Archive and some archivists in Canada and the
U.S. have complained that the removal had robbed Iraq of its heritage.
The archive was eventually sent to the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University in California.
Photo: Peter Klein/Image of Sports/Newscom/Zuma Press
In a 2008 statement, the Society of American Archivists and Association
of Canadian Archivists urged that the records be returned to the
government of Iraq, criticism Mr. Makiya sought to rebut by arguing that
the Iraqi government had formally approved of the Hoover Institution
In 2013, the U.S. returned a different trove of documents, captured in
the 2003 war, without public notice. That prompted concerns among
Western researchers that they might have been exploited politically by
then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had been criticized for his
sectarian policies, according to a 2019 article by Bruce Montgomery, a
former archivist for the University of Colorado who has written a book
on Iraq’s archives, and Mr. Brill.
This time, the U.S. is dealing with a new prime minister, Mr. Kadhimi,
who became the head of Iraq’s intelligence service after leaving the
foundation and took over the prime-minister post in May. After American
officials decided to return the archive as a gesture of goodwill for the
new leader, the U.S. and Iraq referred to the pending return of the
documents in a joint communiqué on Aug. 19. Hoover retains a digital copy.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in July. He helped uncover the
trove in 2003.
Photo: THAIER AL-SUDANI/Press Pool
A State Department official said Iraq has asked for the return of the
archive and that the U.S. has no evidence that any of the documents
returned in 2013 had been misused.
“It belongs in their keeping because it is their history,” the State
Department official said of the archive returned Monday. “Iraq is a
sovereign country, and they should be responsible for any precautions
they need to prevent potential misuse of this stuff.”
The transfer of the documents had been wrapped in secrecy because of
concern that Iranian-backed militias or other lawless groups would try
to intercept the shipment, which is now tightly secured at an
undisclosed location in the Iraqi capital.
“Iraq deserves its historical legacy back, and we can have some
confidence that the Kadhimi government will handle them responsibly,”
Mr. Montgomery said of the documents. “But what happens after his prime
ministership ends may very well be problematic.”
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