Saddam soon will be history. It’s important that the United States collect and preserve as much of it as possible. I refer to the vast archives of the various arms of the Iraqi regime: the presidency of the republic, the Baath Party, the Republican Guard, the intelligence and security organizations, the ministries of foreign affairs and information, and more. If the United States establishes a military authority to run the country, it should do what the Western allies did in occupied Germany: collect and collate the archives of the enemy. That’s necessary not only to locate any weapons of mass destruction, and to de-Baathize and de-Saddamize the state. It’s the only way to provide researchers with the evidence they will need to reconstruct precisely what went wrong in Saddam’s Iraq.
The process is already underway. In 1992 and 1993, two Kurdish groups turned over to the United States eighteen tons (four million pages) of Iraqi documents seized from abandoned government offices in the north. This massive collection has been digitized and used to great effect by the Defense Department and Human Rights Watch. The Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard has a significant portion of these documents in digital form, as well as other documents left behind by the Iraqis in Kuwait. (Kanan Makiya directs the project.) The documents themselves are stored by the National Archives.
But this is a pittance compared to the massive archives in Iraq itself. Documents from every military unit, government office, scientific lab, overseas embassy, secret prison, and interrogation cell, make their way in a steady stream to Baghdad. There they are passed up the bureacratic chain of command, in multiple copies, to the most trusted inner circles. In the protocols of the meetings held around Saddam’s long table, decisions of war, repression, and evasion are carefully recorded for further action. These are the real “smoking guns.” As Human Rights Watch put it in 1994 (in regard to the Kurds), “it is not unlikely that the strongest evidence of genocide will only be found in the event of a change of government in Baghdad and the opening up of security archives there.” That’s probably true for a whole range of highly sensitive subjects, from elimination of dissidents to support for terrorism.
When an army moves, its priorities are operational. That’s why it’s so important to emphasize, in advance, the need to avoid the destruction of enemy documents, and to secure them as rapidly as possible. Not only do the documents have immense long-term value. They are certain to back up the rationales for the war itself. Captured enemy documents can have a dramatic political impact. To this day, the Osama bin Laden video recovered in Afghanistan, in which he boasts of bringing down the World Trade Center, is the strongest public piece of evidence against him. Last spring, the Israeli Defense Forces seized a trove of documents from Arafat’s compound, Palestinian political offices, and police stations. The documents linked Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to terrorism, and their publication put Arafat beyond the pale in Washington. If the United States goes to war on only half a tank of international legitimacy, expeditious publication of Iraqi documents will be even more important.
It’s not just the Iraqis and Americans who have an interest in these archives. Kuwaitis might like to know more about Saddam’s decision to invade their country in 1990, and the fate of Kuwaitis who “disappeared” during the Iraqi occupation. Iranians might like to know about Saddam’s still earlier decision to invade their country in 1980, and Iraq’s strategic rationale during the war. And Israelis would wish to learn what Saddam was thinking when he sent missiles into Tel Aviv in 1991. His connections with Arafat and Palestinian groups will also be of prime interest. An international commission of historians could supervise that aspect of the work.
Personally, I’d like to see the documents from the foreign and information ministries. I want to read the evidence of the Baghdad regime’s cynical use of the soft-headed scholars and the gullible journalists, the do-gooders and the fellow travellers, the Ramsey Clarks and the John Pilgers. Send in the xerox machines.