As US forces stormed through Iraq in the spring of 2003, Iraqi officials scurried to hide the archives of the ruling Baath Party and Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) as well as of key government and intelligence departments in underground cellars where they were nevertheless soon discovered by trophy hunters.
Most of the archives were seized and somehow ended up in the hands of the invading US soldiers who quietly mailed them home where they disappeared before resurfacing years later in US universities and research centres.
Millions of documents collected from the RCC, Baath Party headquarters and other sources that include detailed government records and Saddam Hussein’s private deliberations with his inner circle were flown to the United States and never returned to Iraq.
No one knows exactly what happened to this treasure trove of insights into 35 years of rule by the regime of the former dictator and Iraq’s recent political history.
Since they were moved to the United States, reports have occasionally surfaced that the stolen documents and videos have been accessed by special agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and representatives of other US security departments.
According to these leaked reports, the investigations focused primarily on documenting human-rights abuses and revealing the inner workings of Saddam’s brutal authoritarian rule.
After carefully sifting through the vast archives, many of the documents were moved to US think tanks for further research and analysis by American experts to the disadvantage of the Iraqi public and scholars.
Most of the documents are believed to have ended up at the National Defence University at the Pentagon, the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, and the Hoover Institution, a public-policy think tank and research institution at Stanford University in California.
In 2010, the archives were opened to dozens of mostly American scholars to conduct research that again focused on the nature of Saddam’s totalitarian rule and the coercive measures his regime used to subdue the population.
One recent work that used Saddam’s records is “Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq” authored by Samuel Helfont, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
The publisher, Oxford University Press, describes the book as providing “a new explanation for Saddam’s instrumentalising of Islam which offers a new explanation for the rise of religious insurgencies in post-2003 Iraq.”
Underlining the way Saddam used Islam to control the Iraqi population during his dictatorship, the author resorts to the archives to establish a link between Saddam’s use of Islamic discourse and the Sunni insurgency that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.
In his book, Helfont, a former member of a US intelligence-gathering team in the Iraq War, tries to draw on Baath Party archives to establish this narrative, which was widely used by the Western media after the 2003 invasion.
Among other books authored by researchers given access to the Iraqi archives is the “State of Repression: Iraq Under Saddam Hussein” by Lisa Blaydes, a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
The Hoover Institution’s Library and Archives boast more than 10 million digitised page images and 1,500 video files collected from Iraq’s Baath Party headquarters and other sources.
In her book, Blaydes used materials from the Baath Party archives and Saddam’s security agencies to tackle everyday topics of governance, the monitoring of the political preferences of students and rumours during the 1990s and early 2000s in Iraq.
One of the earlier research works that relied on the stolen archives is “Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime” by Joseph Sassoon, an associate professor at Georgetown University in the US.
Sassoon, who was born in Baghdad to a prominent Jewish family and has written several books about Iraq, again used Saddam’s archives to highlight the coercive nature of his regime and how the ruling party coordinated with the security services and Saddam’s own office.
Yet, while disclosing Saddam’s shocking legacy remains a vital goal to help people understand three decades of his totalitarian system and trace atrocities in Iraq, the huge resources should also be made available to Iraqi historians and the Iraqi public.
Beyond the substantial picture of Saddam’s vicious rule that the trove can provide, the primary material could certainly provide a wealth of information for historians and social science scholars to re-examine Iraq’s modern history through tales and dark secrets known only in the corridors of power.
For years, pressure has been mounting to make the US authorities return Iraq’s stolen documents, or at least make them available for the time being until circumstances allow their return to Iraqi scholars, researchers and history students.
However, citing security and other logistical issues the US government and the American universities involved have consistently refused to send the documents back to Iraq and have kept them off limits to the Iraqi public and Iraqi scholars and historians.
Unlike the arrangements made over the Nazi Party documents taken from Germany after World War II and later returned to Germany, the United States is procrastinating in negotiating the future of the Iraqi archives.
While the rebuff represents the usual imperialist arrogance of not accepting responsibility for the invasion and its consequences, Washington’s refusal to send back the stolen Iraqi archives or make them available to Iraqis raises eyebrows at its motives all the same.
What matters most is denying Iraqis the opportunity to access the archives and help them show their own professionalism and make their own scholarly contributions to their own history in using them.
The elitist and orientalist views expressed thus far in the handful of books written based on the archives can be pointed to, but important questions remain about the moral and academic rights of US institutions to keep Iraq’s historic records under their control.
This writer spent decades working in the Iraqi and foreign media studying, assessing and trying to explain Saddam’s discourse, personality and mindset. Combined with the intricacies and complexities of Iraq’s modern history, he can conclude that any significant interpretation of Saddam’s era will be doomed if it ignores the participation of serious Iraqi students of Saddam.
One lesson that can be drawn comes from the work of Israel’s “new historians” who worked hard to use Israeli archives to re-examine the history of Israel and Zionism.
Leading Israeli scholars like Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim based their research on Israeli government documents that have become public since the late 1980s and challenged key aspects of the official narrative of Israeli history.
Thanks to their integrity and professionalism in deciphering the Israeli archives, we now have a better and more plausible view of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the plight of the Palestinians.
Perhaps the ground-breaking work of the new Israeli historians was not as original as its authors made out, since Palestinian and Arab writers have long challenged the Israeli narrative. However, its integrity comes from their Israeli intellectual perceptions and the methodology they used in their writings.
While it may be true that “history is always someone’s opinion,” if the books that have been published thus far based on the millions of Saddam-era documents are any indication, Iraq’s modern history is being re-written by American scholars who answer to different political or academic authorities and not to Iraq’s local needs, contexts and perceptions.
In order to fill this void, the US authorities and the American universities should start negotiating a plan with the relevant Iraqi bodies on how to best preserve and make Saddam’s archives available to Iraqi history students and scholars and ultimately return them to Iraq.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Who owns Iraq’s history?