Setting the Records Straight in Iraq
The issues putting pressure on the U.S.-Iraqi relationship are daunting. The confrontation between Iran and the United States frequently plays out on Iraqi streets. COVID-19 is spreading at alarming rates and overwhelming Iraq’s beleaguered healthcare system. The collapsing oil market has the country’s finances on the brink. Washington has focused its support to Baghdad on much-needed economic and political reforms, while also encouraging the government’s more assertive stance against Popular Mobilization Forces militias operating beyond the state’s control. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has sought to help the Iraqi military maintain pressure against the remnants of ISIS while continuing to reduce the number of American troops in the country.
Given everything happening in the bilateral relationship, why was a historical archive based in California on the agenda of the recent U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue?
The State Department is currently in the process of returning to Iraq some 6.5 million pages of documents from Saddam Hussein’s regime. The archive in question, currently at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, contains mountains of seemingly mundane paperwork generated by the bureaucracy running a single-party state. But it also includes sensitive material pertaining to the membership files of the former ruling Baʿth Party, regime informants, and information gathered by the security services on prominent political figures and ordinary citizens alike.
The U.S. government’s longstanding relationship with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new prime minister who is deeply familiar with the issue of the documents, offers a valuable opportunity for cooperation on this matter and a number of related historical and archival issues. Although improved cultural ties will not mitigate the severe fiscal, public-health, and political challenges facing Iraq, positive developments on this front may create a better environment to address other issues as well. Increased American political support for ongoing diplomatic efforts should help strengthen U.S.-Iraqi relations, foster an increasingly positive relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, and continue to safeguard an important part of Iraq’s historical patrimony for all of its citizens.
History of the Baʿth Party Archive
Secured as a result of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Baʿth Regional Command Collection, also known as the Baʿth Party Archive, will be the final Saddam-regime collection of documents returned to Iraq that were transferred outside the country during the 1991 and 2003 wars. The documents have been in the possession of the Iraq Memory Foundation, a non-governmental organization registered first in Washington, D.C. and later Baghdad, since 2003. In 2005, with the approval of Iraq’s interim government, the Defense Department airlifted the documents out of Iraq for safekeeping in the United States. At the time, the security situation in Baghdad was rapidly deteriorating as the country descended into civil war. Pentagon officials under then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz supported the airlift on the grounds that the documents were useful for understanding the predominantly Sunni-based insurgency battling U.S. troops in central and western Iraq. Upon arriving in West Virginia, Defense Intelligence Agency personnel completed the digitization of the documents, a process that had begun in Baghdad.
The removal of the archive from Iraq was vocally condemned by then-Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archive Saad Eskander, along with archivists and academics abroad. American and Canadian archivists criticized the move as a possible “act of pillage” and called for the immediate repatriation to Iraq of all records held by U.S. institutions. After a potential deal with Harvard University fell through, the Baʿth Party Archive was subsequently moved and has been held at the Hoover Institution since 2008. Upon returning to Iraq, the archive will join the much larger collection of Saddam-regime documents — an estimated 100 to 120 million pages — along with audio and video records quietly returned to Iraq by the Pentagon under the Obama administration in May 2013. In the long story of the documents first secured by Iraq Memory Foundation activists, recent developments in Iraqi politics have been central to the final chapter covering the return of the documents to the country.
A New Day and a Final Chapter in Iraq?
Mustafa al-Kadhimi — Iraq’s former spy chief and one of the three co-founders of the Iraq Memory Foundation — became prime minister in May. His political rise has expedited discussions between U.S. and Iraqi officials about the repatriation of the Baʿth Party Archive and several other cultural issues. For instance, the Joint Statement on the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue in early June announced, “On the cultural front, the two governments discussed plans to return important political archives to the Government of Iraq…The two sides also discussed artifacts and plans to return the Baath Party archives to Iraq.”
Kadhimi co-founded the Iraq Memory Foundation shortly before the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and after years working in exile as a democracy and human rights advocate in opposition to Saddam’s regime. In this capacity, he worked alongside Kanan Makiya and Hassan Mneimneh, both of whom had worked to document the atrocities of Baʿthist rule dating back to the early 1990s at the U.S.-based Iraq Research and Documentation Project.
Their successor organization aimed to help Iraq come to terms with the legacies of dictatorship through the creation of a museum, a public outreach initiative working with primary and secondary school teachers and students, preservation of the former regime’s records, and a research facility that would ultimately be linked to Iraq’s university system. Kadhimi served as the Baghdad-based director of the foundation from 2003 to 2010, where he led its oral history initiative, which sought to put a human face on the suffering often dryly documented in Baʿth-era records. The resulting Iraqi Testimonials Project interviewed a wide cross-section of Iraqis about their experiences of oppression under Saddam’s regime. The oral histories subsequently aired on Iraqi television in four seasons between 2005 and 2008.
Kadhimi is not the only Iraqi leader with a longstanding interest in the documents of Saddam’s regime and Iraqi historical patrimony. In 1991, it was Barham Salih, Iraq’s current president, who informed Makiya about the existence of large quantities of regime documents in the possession of the Kurdish Peshmerga, secured in the course of the uprising against the Baʿth Party in the wake of the Gulf War. Salih also served as Jalal Talabani’s personal envoy in talks with U.S. Senate staffer Peter Galbraith about the future of the documents. Both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish Democratic Party turned over the documents in their possession for safekeeping in the United States in the early 1990s, where they were moved to the University of Colorado Boulder in 1998. The Justice Department quietly returned the documents to Iraq in 2005, in preparation for trials against Saddam and his inner circle. The documents have remained in the custody of the Iraqi High Tribunal and Ministry of Justice in Baghdad over the past 15 years, contrary to inaccurate reports in the Iraqi media earlier this year that they were in North Carolina.
Beyond documenting Baʿthist rule over northern Iraq, the archive contains evidence of the 1988 Anfal campaigns, in which Iraqi forces killed an estimated 100,000 Kurds and thousands of Assyrians, Turkomans, Yazidis, Shabak, and Kakais. Against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and domestic insurgency waged primarily by Kurdish rebel groups, the Baʿth regime’s counter-insurgency efforts escalated into a series of systematic campaigns using chemical weapons and village destruction to alter the physical geography and demographic composition of northern Iraq.
A Role for the Documents in Advancing Peace
U.S. officials should encourage Kadhimi to return the Baʿth regime’s records documenting the Anfal campaigns to northern Iraq. This would be an important goodwill gesture to improve increasingly positive relations between Erbil and Baghdad. Pending the future establishment of a Kurdish national library and archive, the collection could be transferred to the Kurdistan Regional Government or in consultation with all concerned parties, to a non-governmental institution, such as the Zheen Archive Center, which already holds a digitized copy of the documents.
As a human rights advocate who personally interviewed survivors of the Anfal campaigns, Kadhimi is well-aware of how emotional the subject remains for Iraqi Kurds in particular. Erbil- and Baghdad-based officials should support initiatives to help the families of all victims, while encouraging the study of Iraq’s past in a way that helps defuse ethnic and sectarian tensions in the present. Although not his responsibility, Kadhimi’s gesture would make good on the initial agreement between the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Kurdish parties for the safekeeping and future restitution of the records to Iraqi Kurdistan, which a Justice Department task force knowingly or unknowingly abrogated when it transferred custody of the documents to the central Iraqi authorities in Baghdad.
U.S. officials should also work closely with their Iraqi counterparts to ensure that the Baʿth Party Archive documents remain safe upon their return to Iraq, and that Iranian-backed and sectarian political actors do not take possession of them. In his previous role as director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service starting in 2016, Kadhimi helped oversee the interagency effort charged with safekeeping the 100 to 120 million pages of documents returned to Iraq by the Pentagon in 2013. He was widely recognized for depoliticizing and professionalizing the agency during his tenure as director. Nevertheless, U.S. officials should also encourage Kadhimi to investigate to what extent the documents repatriated to Iraq in 2013 were exploited by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the security services loyal to him, efforts that likely exacerbated sectarian tensions as Iraq was sliding back into chaos and ISIL was ascendant. While looking into the Maliki government’s actions may be challenging politically, it’s essential to discover the truth of what happened.
In light of the fact that recently replaced Iraqi National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayyad signed the “Relinquishment of Possession” for the records the Pentagon repatriated to Iraq in 2013, his subsequent involvement with the documents should be closely scrutinized. Fayyad has enjoyed close ties to highly sectarian and Iran-backed figures, such as Hadi al-Amiri, Qais and Laith al-Khazali, and the late Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Fayyad as one of the Iranian proxies responsible for abetting the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last December. When I informed a former U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in Iraq that Fayyad signed on behalf of the Iraqi government in 2013, he remarked, “It is a pretty good assumption that if Falih al-Fayyad had custody of the documents, they were used for sectarian purposes.”
The United States should organize a final repatriation ceremony that includes American diplomats and military officials and their Iraqi counterparts. Such an event should take place after the documents are all securely back in Iraq. While an official ceremony runs the risk of drawing unwanted attention to the documents, media coverage and public awareness may make it more difficult for them to be exploited. Neither the Iraqi nor the American public was informed of the 2005 and 2013 repatriations. Based on conversations I have had with American policymakers, it appears that although U.S. officials stopped tracking the whereabouts of the records formerly in the Pentagon’s possession upon their return to Iraq in 2013, they continued to receive queries from some of their Iraqi counterparts who were themselves unaware of the repatriation.
Beyond potential sectarian exploitation of the documents, the broader historical and social import pertains both to studying the past and awareness of the degree to which the Baʿth Party eventually intruded into practically all aspects of daily life during its rule over Iraq between 1968 and 2003. As Kanan Makiya explained to me in a recent phone conversation, “The true sensitivity and horror of the documents come from the ways in which ordinary people were caught up in the system.” As such, the Baʿth Party Archive and other documents from Saddam’s regime will be of interest to Iraqis who were alive then, along with those too young to remember or born after the end of Baʿth Party rule.
None of the documents repatriated to Baghdad in 2005 and 2013 have been made available to researchers in Iraq, although these records and the Baʿth Party Archive should in theory be subject eventually to legislation passed by Iraq’s parliament in 2008 and 2016. Digitized copies of records in the Pentagon’s possession were made available to researchers in Washington, D.C. at the Conflict Records Research Center from 2010 to 2015, a project that awaits being rebooted or transferred to another institution. The digitized copy of the Baʿth Party Archive, along with other digitized collections in the Iraq Memory Foundation’s possession, have been available to researchers at the Hoover Institution since 2010. Since the closing of the Conflict Records Research Center, the Hoover Institution has hosted the only archives of Saddam’s regime open for research anywhere in the world.
Due to Iraq’s fiscal crisis and the persistent problem of institutional capacity, a partnership with the Hoover Institution or other American academic institutions could be an effective means for supporting future research by Iraqis in Iraq. Such an initiative would be in keeping with “efforts to increase the capabilities of Iraqi universities” mentioned in the Joint Statement on the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. The template may prove to be “The ISIS Files,” formerly in the possession of the New York Times. In addition to launching a website for research featuring documents and studies based on them, George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has formed a research partnership with the University of Mosul.
Although very different with respect to geopolitical circumstances, the 2005 to 2020 repatriation of the Saddam-regime archives to Iraq will have transpired over a timeframe comparable to the post-World War II repatriation of captured Nazi records to the Federal Republic of Germany between 1953 and 1968. Historically, although generally not at the top of meeting agendas, the repatriation of archives has nevertheless been an important step in improving diplomatic relations between countries in the aftermath of armed conflict. In the case of U.S.-Iraqi ties, given Kadhimi’s personal involvement with the history of the Baʿth Party Archive, his plan of leading the Iraqi delegation that will meet with Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo in the next round of talks in the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue should offer a chance for U.S. officials to speak with him directly on the issue. Last but definitely not least, increased attention to the subject of Iraqi archives more broadly may facilitate additional positive steps on top of those already made by U.S. and Iraqi officials toward a final arrangement for the Iraqi Jewish Archive. Such a deal will address the concerns of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora, international Jewish groups, and Iraqi political leaders, academics, and citizens.
The Future of the Baʿthist Past Lies in Iraq
Three decades of conflict have intertwined the histories of Iraq and the United States on numerous levels. Continued efforts to help safeguard Iraq’s historical patrimony are a low-cost and responsible means to strengthen U.S.-Iraq relations, expand the working relationship with Iraq’s new prime minister, and encourage warming ties between Baghdad and Erbil. The return of the Baʿth Party Archive to Iraq may be the final chapter in the story of the repatriation of records captured from Saddam’s regime, although their future in the country remains to be determined. The same is true with respect to uncovering the full story of, circumstances surrounding, and consequences stemming from the quiet repatriation of records to Iraq in 2005 and 2013.
Iraq has a young population and more than 17 years have passed since the toppling of Saddam’s regime. Nevertheless, Iraq’s older political elites experienced the Baʿthist period inside the country, in exile, or in some combination of both. Events during the Baʿthist period were formative in shaping the ideological and political worldview of most if not all of them. At the same time, the legacies of dictatorship combined with the consequences of the U.S.-led invasion have cast a long shadow over Iraqi politics since 2003. Historical memory of the Baʿthist period continues to hold potential for either political weaponization or reconciliation. At long last, the remaining balance of official documentary sources for either endeavor will be back in Iraq.
Michael P. Brill is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, where his research focuses on Baʿthist Iraq.