The Iraqi National Library and Archives has asked Stanford’s Hoover Institution to return Baath Party records acquired in early 2008 on a five-year loan — a request Hoover is resisting because it doesn’t deem security in Baghdad sufficient to ensure the documents’ security.
The records consist of more than seven million documents that once belonged to Iraq’s Baath Party and security forces, which ruled the country from 1968 until its overthrow by U.S. and coalition forces in 2003. The documents came to Hoover via the Iraq Memory Foundation (IMF), a Washington, D.C.-based group that entered Baghdad in 2003 to protect historical records.
Richard Sousa, the director of Hoover’s library and archives, brokered the agreement with the foundation, which agreed to store the Baath records in a Hoover archive until conditions in Baghdad are sufficient to ensure the archive’s security.
“We have documents from the Iraqi ministry saying Hoover can hold on to these while we [the ministry] find a safe haven for them,” Sousa said. “Now, even though the Iraqis say things are better, it’s certainly not clear to everyone that the situation is better.”
Indeed, several scholars have, in light of the request, lamented the security in Baghdad, where the National Library and Archives is located.
“Circumstances are unstable in Iraq — there are different actors with a variety of motives and the ability to ensure the physical integrity of the documents is questionable,” said Larry Diamond ’73 M.A. ’78 Ph.D. ’80, a Hoover senior fellow and former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. “If you’re a Baath terrorist and you know these records have been physically returned to Iraq and are sitting in building X or basement Y, that’s going to be a very inviting target.”
Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian studies and an Iranian exile, expressed concern that the records, if returned, could be used for political means.
“My fear is that, if the rest of the region is any example, those in power will use these documents for scoring political points against opponents,” Milani said. “I would hope that they would go back to a democratic Iraq that will make them readily available to scholars, equally available to scholars and safely available to scholars.”
“It doesn’t take an area expert to really see that Iraq today is not a very safe place for these kinds of valuable documents,” he added.
The director of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, Saad Eskander, has made the request not only to Hoover — which he and a delegation did in person earlier this month — but also to the National Archives in Washington, which currently stores a Jewish archive, and to the Pentagon and the CIA, which house other Iraqi records.
“This was the first time that Iraq presented an official demand to retrieve all the documents, not only the Jewish archive,” Eskander told Reuters last week.
Still, according to an e-mail to The Daily from Kanan Makiya, the founder of IMF, there is a “deep rift” within the Iraqi Ministry of Culture about whether or not any of the records should be returned now.
Makiya said that in an Iraqi radio program that aired last Thursday, which he heard in Erbil, Iraq, “a deputy minister of culture, senior to Eskander and his team who visited Hoover, tore into his colleagues’ allegations, supporting enthusiastically the IMF and Hoover’s role.”
Eskander did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the back-and-forth, Sousa has maintained since the Baath records arrived at Hoover that the documents belong to the Iraqi people and will be returned.
“From the start, these papers belong to the Iraqi people,” he said.
Scholars who now work with the records access digitized copies; the originals are kept in an undisclosed location. Sousa said “most” of the archive has already been digitized.
“We have no other case where an entire ruling party’s archives are found in one place and are being rigorously, systematically catalogued and being made available to scholars,” Milani said of the digitization project.
Diamond said digitization of the archive will likely appeal to both scholars in the United States and the Iraqi people.
“Nationalism is very strong in Iraq, so the sense that their treasures or their precious history be returned to the country is probably something that would resonate with a lot of Iraqis,” he said. “But I think the goal of preserving a complete historical record is also something that will resonate with them.”
Talks between Hoover and the Iraqi National Library and Archives will continue next month, when Sousa and Eskander are set to meet in Washington.
“We’re working with them to try to find a time when these things should go back,” Sousa said.