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Over pages, war rages

August 08, 2008|Jon Wiener | Jon Wiener teaches history at UC Irvine and is a contributing editor of The Nation. His most recent book is "Historians in Trouble."

A lot worse things have happened in Iraq, but the removal of the Baath Party archives from the country -- 7 million pages that undoubtedly document atrocities of the Saddam Hussein regime -- is significant. The documents were seized shortly after the fall of Baghdad by Kanan Makiya, an Iraq-born emigre who teaches at Brandeis University and heads a private group called the Iraq Memory Foundation. Despite protests from the director of Iraq's National Library and Archives, the documents were shipped to the U.S. in 2006 by Makiya's foundation and in June deposited with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University under a deal struck with Makiya.

The move was criticized in both countries. The Society of American Archivists said seizing and removing the documents was "an act of pillage" prohibited under the laws of war. Iraq's acting minister of culture, Akram H. Hadi, issued a statement in late June expressing the Iraqi government's "absolute rejection" of Makiya's deal. The documents "are part of the national heritage of Iraq," the statement declared, and must be returned to Iraq promptly.

Given the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the millions of refugees, why should anybody care about Iraq's archives? It comes down to whether you care about what happens to Iraq. It's part of its cultural patrimony. It's part of its ability to hold the previous regime accountable.

About 100 million other pages of Iraqi government documents are still in the hands of the U.S. military after being seized during the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction. The documents now at the Hoover Institution were taken from the Baath Party Regional Command Headquarters in Baghdad and are particularly significant because they almost certainly reveal who secretly collaborated with Hussein -- politically explosive information.

How did one man get possession of the entire Baath Party archives?

Makiya is best known not for his foundation or his 1989 book "Republic of Fear," but rather for his crucial role in convincing Americans -- particularly leading journalists -- to support a war to overthrow Hussein. "More than any single figure," Dexter Filkins wrote in the New York Times last October, Makiya "made the case for invading because it was the right thing to do." Makiya was an ally of Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, and gained fame for a face-to-face meeting with President Bush two months before the U.S.-led invasion during which he said American troops "will be greeted with sweets and flowers."

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Shortly after U.S. troops took Baghdad, Makiya and some associates discovered the documents in "a labyrinthine network of basement rooms under the Baath Party's regional headquarters," according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Makiya told a Chronicle reporter in January that he received permission from the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled Iraq at the time, to move the documents to his parents' home in Baghdad. In 2005, Makiya's foundation reached an agreement with the U.S. military to move the documents to the U.S., and they finally arrived at Stanford in mid-June.

Makiya and the Hoover Institution assert that Baghdad is still too unsafe for the archives. They promise to protect and restore the documents, and eventually return them to Iraq.

It's true that chaotic and violent conditions after an invasion can endanger such crucial government documents. But what ought to happen in such circumstances is clear: It's the responsibility of the occupying power to protect and preserve the documents in question (along with the rest of a country's cultural heritage, such as the National Museum in Baghdad, which, of course, was looted as U.S. troops stood by). If the archives required protection, that was the job of the U.S. government and military, not a private individual.

And if, two years later, continued protection required moving the archives to the U.S., that should have been a job for the U.S. National Archives in a formal agreement with the new government of Iraq, not a deal between Makiya's foundation and a private American institution. Private individuals and organizations simply do not have the legal standing to gather up governmental records and ship them out of the country.

If the Hoover Institution continues to refuse the Iraqi government's demand for return of the archives, the U.S. government, which improperly gave Makiya permission to collect and remove the documents, ought to insist that those records belong to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government. It's up to the Iraqis to decide what to do with them.

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