Naseera Al-Qaisi became a widow in 1985. Her husband, Falih Hassan, was shot to death by Al-Ansar, or the Partisans, members of the Iraqi Communist Party who were fighting the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein from their mountainous hideouts in northern Iraq.
“I only need to know where my husband disappeared,” Al-Qaisi told a local Iraqi TV channel in a video last year that has been going viral on YouTube since then and has triggered a fierce debate about Iraq’s dark past.
“I am being told he was killed, and I want the Communist Party to tell me why,” said Al-Qaisi, who has been campaigning for years to find out the fate of her husband, “executed” by his Communist comrades for allegedly spying for Saddam’s intelligence services.
Many former comrades of Al-Qaisi’s husband wrote on social media that he had been put on a trial by a party tribunal and sentenced to death on charges of treason, a charge she vehemently denies.
Al-Qaisi’s is probably among the millions of cases of victims whose families hope their mysterious disappearances will be solved by accessing Saddam’s intelligence and security files, which were returned recently to Iraq from the United States.
The Iraqi Mukhabarat, the General Intelligence Service, and the Directorate of Al-Amn Al-Am, the General Security Department, were notorious for their surveillance of Iraqi citizens during the Saddam period, many of whom were pressed into spying on each other.
In September, the United States sent back to Baghdad a trove of Saddam-era files, prying open the country’s painful past and prompting hopes that some may learn the fate of long-lost relatives along with fears of renewed grief.
After the collapse of the Saddam’s regime in the US-led invasion in April 2003, the offices of his ruling Iraqi Baath Party and Intelligence were stormed by groups of Iraqi opposition members from the diaspora who had joined American soldiers in the war.
Millions of documents, including the Baath Party records, were moved to the United States by the occupation authority, where they were sorted out, copied and pieced together by US intelligence agencies.
US officials said millions of files were digitised and stored at the Wilson Centre in Washington and the Hoover Institution, a conservative-leaning think tank at Stanford University in California, with access restricted to researchers on site.
The files are believed to catalogue the tragedy and trauma of more than 33 toxic years of Saddam’s Baath Party rule, when the regime’s secret police and vast networks of informants had a pair of eyes and ears tracking every Iraqi citizen.
In Al-Qaisi’s case, Saddam’s police state has been a thread running through her life as a member of the underground Iraqi Communist Party, which was a victim of systemic persecution.
Two years before her husband’s “execution,” Al-Qaisi escaped death when Kurdish Peshmergas, or rebels with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), killed or summarily executed dozens of her comrades who had partnered with the Kurds to fight Saddam.
From the perspective of surviving Communists in Iraq, the massacre in 1983 was part of a deal between Saddam’s regime and PUK leader Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s first president after the US-led invasion, to crack down on the remnants of the country’s Communist Party in return for money and military and political backing against his Kurdish rivals.
Over the years, information has emerged about Talabani’s and the PUK leadership’s collaboration with Saddam’s regime, but the families of the victims after the US-led invasion also expected that the security archives could provide details about their relationship.
Saddam’s Mukhabarat was not merely a passive surveillance agency. It was also a repressive secret police force that actively sought to punish enemies of the regime, who were frequently detained or assassinated.
Among its important activities was the infiltration of Iraqi opposition groups abroad. The Mukhabarat reportedly succeeded in building close relations with many in the opposition movement while Saddam was in power in Iraq.
Saddam regime’s documents which were quietly flown back to Baghdad in September were immediately tucked away in an undisclosed location in the Iraqi capital.
The government has not announced any plans to open the archives to the public. It has yet to issue plans for the use of the important archives by researchers and the media.
Like Al-Qaisi, thousands of Iraqi families have spent years pleading with the post-invasion governments, political groups and civil-society organisations for information on the whereabouts of their relatives.
Many hope that the Saddam regime’s documents are the beginning of a thread that they can follow to know the fates of the victims and give them a measure of justice.
Despite arguments by scholars and anti-impunity groups, concerns have long been voiced that the publication of the secret files, or making them available to the public, could pose major problems in terms of national healing.
For researchers and activists in favour of opening the archives, the files are important in lifting the lid on one of the darkest pages of Iraq’s modern history and providing an accurate picture of Saddam’s repressive police state.
For the Iraqi public, opening the secret files of one of the most-feared security apparatuses in the world could help them to find out whether they were being spied on, and by whom, and the extent of the punishment and surveillance they were subjected to under Saddam.
However tormenting the task might seem, unmasking spies and collaborators is a healing process that can help Iraqis to know the truth and come to terms with a past that is still haunting them.
But many fear that the appalling revelations in the Saddam archives could open wounds that could further inflame sectarian and ethnic tensions in a nation already ridden by multiple conflicts, including its struggle to reconcile itself with its past.
Many Iraqis fear that the revelations will make rival political groups begin to use the files against one another in view of expectations that the documents contain the names of current officials that could threaten their long honeymoon with the public.
Much will depend on the Iraqi government, which should announce its intentions on how to deal with the documents and whether that will include plans on how the country can confront its past.
Iraq should establish ad hoc institutions to deal with the records, including government agencies that administer the archives of Saddam’s regime and secure them permanently through the use of appropriate expertise and technology.
While the archives should remain open to competent Iraqi scholars for research, these institutions should make at least selected records publicly accessible, including through exhibitions, tours and educational events.
More importantly, special institutions should be found that can use the documents to cement communal reconciliation and promote a shared sense of national unity.
This will need new legislation to organise the process with a clear mandate and an efficient independent administration of scholars, experts and archivists.
None of these measures have been taken since Saddam’s fall to administer justice to the victims of his repressive regime and to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.
Instead, successive governments in Iraq have created phony organisations interested in promoting cronyism through generous state compensation to “ghost victims” rather than fostering the healing of those who really suffered.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly