The Saddam files and the battle for Iraqi history

  • Themes: Iraq, Middle East

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the American military seized millions of pages of secret documents from Saddam Hussein's regime, setting off an ongoing battle for the control of Iraqi history.

An archivist checks books and documents at the Iraq National Library and Archives in Baghdad.
An archivist checks books and documents at the Iraq National Library and Archives in Baghdad. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Forgotten documents buried in archives can reveal an almost infinite range of stories. Some of these will be told; others will not. Some documents will be highlighted and dissected; others will be ignored. The best historians recognise their own biases and attempt to rein them in. Yet no historian can avoid the inevitable choices, and no two historians will tell the same story in the same way, even if they rely on the same documents. ‘Who controls the past controls the future,’ George Orwell wrote in 1984. As such, who has access to archives and who writes the histories contained in them can transform mundane, scholarly work into political warfare.

Over the past few decades, historians of Iraq have found themselves consumed by these dilemmas. In spring 2024, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC announced that it will host an archive of the ‘Saddam files’, internal and formerly secret Iraqi records from the period of Saddam Hussein’s rule. It marks the next phase in the tortured journey of Iraqi archives back and forth between Iraq and the United States. The history of those archives is as fascinating as the secret files they contain. The archives are not just a means to understand Iraqi history; they are an essential part of the historic confrontation between Washington and Baghdad. They also raise questions about who can write Iraq’s history and how Baghdad’s confrontation with the United States will be remembered.

There are several sets of internal records from Saddam’s Iraq. The Woodrow Wilson Center houses a relatively small collection, which has been translated into English. The earliest collections of Iraqi records emerged during and after the Gulf War in 1991. As the Iraqi military retreated from Kuwait in disarray, it left weapons, equipment, and documents strewn about the country. Then, just after the war, the Iraqi military was forced out of northern Iraq, which left Iraqi Kurdistan as a semi-autonomous region. The Kurds raided local offices of Saddam’s Baath Party and seized any records they could find.

The story of records that Iraqis left in Kuwait and Kurdistan is tied closely to the rise and fall of post-Cold War idealism. In September 1990, George H.W. Bush announced that the coming Gulf War would help usher in a ‘new world order’. Now that the Cold War had concluded, he told Americans they were entering an age in which ‘nations recognise the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak’, and ‘the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony’. In those strange, idealistic years of the early 1990s, Human Rights Watch and the American Defense Intelligence Agency were momentarily on the same team. Together, they collected and analysed the abandoned Iraqi records, searching for violations of international law and crimes against humanity.

Ultimately, the US government gave the documents to the exiled Iraqi academic, Kanan Makiya, and his Iraq Research and Documentation Project. Makiya had been a leftist dissident in Iraq, but he had grown close to American and British powerbrokers in a bid to rid Iraq of Saddam’s tyrannical rule. By documenting the Iraqi regime’s atrocities, he hoped to bring down Saddam’s rule. Makiya later rebranded his organisation as the Iraq Memory Foundation. It became a central node in a network of Iraqi exiles who helped convince American politicians and eventually the George W. Bush administration that a war to topple Saddam was both viable and just. American soldiers, Makiya insisted, would be greeted with ‘sweets and flowers’.

The records that the Iraqi Memory Foundation collected played an important role in this campaign for war. A graduate student at Oxford University named Ibrahim al-Marashi worked with Makiya. He published his findings in a journal article in 2002, which reconstructed the dense network of Iraqi intelligence services. British intelligence borrowed from his work, suggesting it was up-to-date and based on secret information. In reality, al-Marashi’s research was based on publicly available records that had been captured a decade earlier. British intelligence combined al-Marashi’s findings with dubious assertions about illicit Iraqi weapons. The British press dubbed the resulting report the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ when Tony Blair used it to justify the war against Saddam Hussein. The idealism that initially surrounded these records was turning to cynicism. It would only get worse.

During the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US military seized massive archives from Iraqi state institutions. These included everything from Ministry of Defense records, the files of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, and the recordings of Saddam’s meetings with senior advisors. By some estimates, the collection included over 100 million pages, which filled 35,504 boxes on 634 pallets. This massive archive was moved to a US Army base in Qatar, where contractors scanned them, hastily wrote brief summaries of each file, and then uploaded them into a government database. American intelligence analysts and official historians working for the US Department of Defense began sifting through them looking for evidence of the Iraq weapons of mass destruction programmes and connections to terrorists. It quickly became evident that the assertions that George W. Bush had made to sell the war were simply not true. Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction. It did sponsor terrorism, but in 2001 it had no active connections to al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.

Iraqi state records were not the only documents seized in 2003. Kanan Makiya and his Iraq Memory Foundation moved into Baghdad in the wake of the invading tanks. He was on the payroll of the American Department of Defense and was free to move around the country. He raced to the destroyed headquarters of the Iraq Baath Party. Next door, Makiya found a treasure trove hidden under a mausoleum for the founder of the party. In the basement, the entire archive, millions of pages, of the ruling Baath Party’s secretariat were stored in thousands of binders. The state records confiscated by the American military were important, but Saddam’s Iraq was a party state. Thus, the Baath party files contained essential information about how Saddam ruled. They showed how he controlled a sometimes-restless Iraqi population, not only with his infamous brutality but also by subtler methods of co-optation.

Makiya had come to Baghdad in the hope of building a new Iraq. He received permission from the Americans to make the records of the Baath Party the hub of a new peace and reconciliation centre. He hoped that by exposing the former regime’s crimes, he could show that all Iraqis were victims. They had all suffered under Saddam and could work together to ensure that such tyranny never returned to the country.

In retrospect, Makiya was naive. His understanding of Iraq had atrophied during his long years of exile, and the Americans were doing everything they could to mismanage the occupation. The country was rife with militants who Saddam’s regime had hunted, tortured, and forced underground. As the country collapsed into chaos and civil war, they emerged from the shadows. They scoured Iraq for documents about their former oppressors and information about other militants, who were now their sectarian adversaries. They wanted access to Baathist records and they wanted revenge.

Archivists who worked for the Iraq Memory Foundation had to move their entire families at a moment’s notice to avoid being targeted by terrorists. Makiya’s dream of using the archives for peace and reconciliation sank with any remaining idealism about the future of Iraq. Instead, as blood began to flow on the streets of Baghdad, Makiya feared he had built a centre for conflict and retribution. Echoing the logic of colonial empires, which plundered artefacts from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Makiya argued that the only way to save the records was to remove them from Iraq. In 2005, he brought them to the United States, where the Department of Defense helped to scan and digitise them. They were eventually housed in the Hoover Tower at Stanford University.

Other Iraqi records met a similar fate. Saddam and the Baathists had an antisemitic obsession with Jews. They not only tracked the dwindling population of Iraqi Jews, including those who had converted, but the Iraqi Intelligence Service also maintained an archive that included the personal property of Jews who had fled Iraq during their mass exodus in the 1950s. Apparently, Iraqi intelligence officers thought things such as Medieval religious texts and modern school notebooks could provide some insight into the Jewish cabal that secretly ran the world through shadowy conspiracies. The Americans found the Jewish records in the flooded basement of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. They took the waterlogged documents and artefacts outside into the arid desert air; they rolled Torah scrolls out in the sun in an attempt to dry them. It soon became evident, however, that these records and artefacts risked being eaten away by mould. They needed professional attention from a conservationist. So, these archives, too, were removed from Iraq.

By the end of the 2000s, millions of records had been taken from the country. They existed either in physical or digital form in the United States. They were an unprecedented collection. No modern Arab state provides open access to its archives. The Department of Defense hoped to learn important lessons from the Saddam files. It had already commissioned studies by the Institute for Defense Analysis covering Iraq’s wartime decision-making and support for terrorism, but there was so much more to be done. If the archives were opened to the public, independent academics and analysts could scour these records much faster and at a fraction of the cost of government-sponsored projects.

As such, the US Defense Department began releasing records online through the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. However, these documents were not vetted and some sensitive material on designs for weapons slipped out. From that point forward, the Pentagon would only release documents that had been vetted. The censors who could vet the material did not, however, speak Arabic. That meant everything would have to be translated into English before it could be released to the public. The National Defense University in Washington DC opened an office called the Conflict Records Research Center in 2010. It began translating, vetting, and releasing documents captured from Iraq in 2003 as well as other records associated with al-Qaeda. Researchers began using the vetted records, but the process of releasing documents was time-consuming and expensive. In 2015, the centre ran out of money and closed. It had released fewer than 100,000 pages of the more than 100 million pages in the collection.

Around the same time as the Conflict Records Research Center opened, the Hoover archives began making digital copies of its Iraq documents available for researchers. That collection included the archive of the Baath party secretariat as well as the records collected by the Kurds and Kuwaitis in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Unlike the Defense Department, Hoover opened the entire untranslated collection to researchers, but the Iraq Memory Foundation’s agreement with Hoover forbade researchers from photocopying or taking pictures of the records. Thus, anyone who wished to use them, had to sit, often for months at a time, taking notes on a personal laptop or with pen and paper.

The availability of these various sets of Iraqi records transformed scholarship on Saddam’s Iraq as well as the series of wars that it fought against its neighbours and the United States. In addition to confirming that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction or connections to the 9/11 attacks, the records included other unexpected information. For example, the conventional wisdom was that Saddam had turned increasingly sectarian in the 1990s. The Iraqi records reveal that Saddam and his regime fought sectarian tendencies until their last days in power. That was not to say that conditions for the Shia majority in Iraq were pleasant under Saddam’s rule. It simply meant that national cohesion was a strategic imperative for Saddam’s iron grip over the country. This fact mattered because American leaders thought that by removing Saddam, they were removing one of the root-causes of sectarian strife in Iraq. In reality, they removed one of the main forces keeping sectarianism in check. Once Saddam was gone, the country erupted into civil war.

Along with these scholarly insights, the archives also produced controversy. Unlike the idealism that brought together scholars, human rights activists, and intelligence officers in the early 1990s, the 21st century was increasingly defined by global turmoil and illiberalism. The 2003 Iraq War sounded the death knell on any remaining hope of a liberal, new world order. The archives were tied to a divisive war waged under contested legal authorities. They were tainted with the whiff of war booty, and their removal from Iraq harkened back to some of the worst colonial practices of European empires.

In 2008, Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, argued that Kanan Makiya had ‘illegally seized’ the Baath Party records. The documents, he insisted, were ‘the property of the Iraqis and the institutions that represent them’. He claimed it was ‘arrogant and unethical’ for ‘one person [read Makiya] to decide the destiny of millions of sensitive official documents that have had and will continue to have considerable impact on the private lives of millions of Iraqi citizens’.

Eskander gained support from within the Iraqi Ministry of Culture for his claims. The Society of American Archivists and the Association of Canadian Archivists released a statement claiming they were ‘deeply concerned about the whereabouts, current custody, and ultimate fate of records captured or otherwise obtained by the United States of America, and those removed by private parties’. The statement covered the Baathist records taken by Makiya, as well as Iraqi state records and Jewish archives removed from Iraq by the US military.

These claims and statements appeared to be damning, but Makiya had his backers as well. The chaos of parliamentary coalitions in Iraq meant that some parts of the government expressed and even executed conflicting policies. Thus, while the Ministry of Culture claimed that Makiya needed to return the records to Iraq, the office of the Iraqi prime minister gave him permission to remove the files from Iraq and act as their caretaker. The US government could point to claims that international law clearly permitted it to temporarily seize and exploit an adversary’s archives in military conflict. Moreover, the US government had acted under the same authorities to seize and exploit records in the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the operation in Grenada.

Whether or not the various sets of Iraqi records were illegally seized, their presence – either physically or digitally – in the United States raised questions about who could access them and the resulting imbalanced narratives of Iraqi history that they produced. Eskander argued that ‘Iraqis, including the scholars and the victims of the former regime will be given no access to their own documents, while the Americans (the occupiers) will continue to enjoy such a privilege’. These critiques often bled beyond the ivory tower into popular debates both in the West and in the Middle East. In 2018, the leading Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, ran an article entitled ‘Who owns Iraq’s history?’

Access to the Iraqi archives has shaped the history that they produced. Publications based on seized Iraqi records skew heavily toward security studies and strategic issues related to American interests. Social and cultural histories of Iraq have been far less common. Much of this disparity can be traced to the archives being in the United States, where there is far greater interest in strategic issues than there is in Iraq’s social and cultural history. For example, almost all the records that the Conflict Records Research Center translated and released came from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi intelligence agencies, and the Office of the President. Almost no records were made available from ministries such as Education or Health. The one exception might be the Ministry of Religious Endowments, but those files were related to strategic issues, such as insurgency and extremist groups.

Nevertheless, the blame for this situation cannot be attributed solely to the location of these archives in the United States. Unbeknown to many of the people making such arguments, in 2013 the Department of Defense had quietly returned the records it had seized to Iraq. That collection consisted of about 90 per cent of all records taken out of the country. Thus, for much of the time that scholars and other activists were calling for the return of the records to Iraq so that Iraqi scholars could access them, the vast majority of them had already been repatriated. Far from being utilised by Iraqi scholars, the returned files were quickly seized by the Iraqi government and disappeared. Today, no one, not even senior Iraqi officials, seems to know where they are. In 2020, Hoover followed suit and returned the Baath Party files as well.

Considering the long history of colonial dispossession and the removal of cultural artefacts such as archives, these records clearly belong in Iraq. And yet, such a conclusion privileges the type of nationalistic assumptions that often draws the ire of modern historians. History is messier and more complicated than a world divided neatly into nation states. The Jewish archives, for example, were taken from a community that no longer exists in Iraq. Insisting on the Iraqi state’s right to those materials – some of which consist of personal possessions that were confiscated from people who are still alive – is also problematic. Assyrian and Kurdish communities that span state borders also destabilise this framework. What does one do about Kuwaitis who want access to records that are central to their own history? Should they have to travel to the state that invaded, looted, raped, and pillaged their country? None of this justifies removing the records from Iraq, but it does complicate the supposedly black-and-white ethics of who can use these archives and where the files can be accessed.

The saga of the Iraqi records is far from over. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Steve Coll, began researching his recent book, The Achilles Trap, on America’s relationship with Saddam Hussein, he came across references to the records that the Department of Defense had captured and translated through the by then defunct Conflict Records Research Center. He was particularly interested in the fact that Saddam had recorded many of his private meetings with senior regime officials and foreign dignitaries. Coll submitted two Freedom of Information Act requests, which the Defense Department proceeded to ignore. So, he sued the American government. The case was settled out of court, but the Department of Defense agreed to provide Coll with the large trove of records he requested. After finishing his book, he donated them to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, where they are currently being processed and made available to scholars. Those records represent only a small fraction of the archives from Saddam’s Iraq.

The full sets of Baathist and Iraqi state records are now in Iraq. Iraqis have a vested interest in their own history and, just as importantly, the cultural understanding to interpret them properly. If the Iraqi government can move past the all-too-Middle Eastern fear of empowering its own people, it will open these archives and allow Iraqis access to their past. Doing so could not only revolutionise the study of Iraqi history, but also help Iraqis to understand and confront problems that have plagued the Arab world for generations. Iraqi archives could, once again, spark idealism and be a tool to build a better world.


Samuel Helfont