The Washington Post Column

Writing Iraq’s Secret History

Wherever he goes, Hassan Mneimneh is deluged with suggestions. Knowledgeable professors tell him about Rwandan war crimes tribunals and Cambodian archival practices. Friendly Germans lecture him on the technical operations of the commission that controls the files of the Stasi, the East German secret police. Intending to be helpful, I told Mneimneh he ought to visit the new museum of totalitarianism in Budapest, which uses video, posters and installations to teach young Hungarians about fascism and communism. He smiled wanly. It sounded interesting, he said, just like all of the other ideas: “But we are at a much, much more basic stage.”

Indeed. Hassan Mneimneh is the co-director of an Iraqi exile research group that has spent the past several years quietly sifting through 2.4 million Iraqi government documents captured during the 1991 Gulf War. Organized by the nonprofit, nongovernmental and nonpolitical Iraq Foundation, Mneimneh’s team knows a great deal about the “thorough but chaotic” techniques that Saddam Hussein used to control his people. Although the team’s members have seen only a tiny fraction of Hussein’s files, they’ve learned that the regime lacked the Stasi’s resources but made up for it with duplication, using not one but several secret services and “special” army divisions. They’ve learned that the Baath Party had a whole unit for collecting rumors, just like Stalin’s secret police. They also know a few names of victims and of perpetrators, all material useful to Iraqis who want to know the fate of relatives, and to put their murderers on trial.

Mneimneh and Kanan Makiya, the dissident writer who runs the Iraq Foundation, certainly want to put their knowledge to use too, and not only for Iraqis who want justice done now. They have long-term projects too: a national archive, perhaps with open files as in East Germany, and a national museum, dedicated to telling the story of the crimes of the regime Makiya has called the “Republic of Fear.” They hope, eventually, that erudite discussions of South African “truth commissions” and Hungarian museums will one day become part of an Iraqi national debate.

Before any of that can happen, however, they need to complete that more “basic” task: to find out exactly what has happened to the rest of the 300 million to 400 million documents that once made up the archives of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Mneimneh estimates that about a fifth of the documents are held privately, by political and religious groups as well as racketeers who use them for blackmail. While in Baghdad a few months ago, a friend of mine saw stacks of them lying around a palace courtyard. The Iraq Foundation controls some regional archives, but — although Congress promised financing — is forced to store them in Makiya’s Baghdad basement.

The rest of the files are controlled by the Iraq Survey Group, the U.S. intelligence unit looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the files’ location is secret. Despite Mneimneh’s offer to put his specialist’s knowledge of the Baathist system to use in that search, and despite some high-level administration promises, the weapons hunters aren’t yet interested in handing over files they don’t need, or even in making real contact. The precedents aren’t good: It took seven years for the foundation to get hold of its original, much smaller collection. If it takes that long for Iraqis to see the rest of the files, no one will believe they are authentic and intact.

Yet in the wake of the arrest of Saddam Hussein, the fate of the files actually becomes more critical. Although Hussein’s trial will certainly be the first and best opportunity to tell the Iraqis the full story of the past 35 years, Hussein did not operate alone, and Iraqis cannot be allowed to blame him alone. Baathism, like other forms of totalitarianism, relied upon a vast network of thugs, acolytes and time-servers. It pulled millions of ordinary people — schoolteachers, bureaucrats, policemen — into complex webs of collaboration as well.

Compiling the record of that collaboration does matter, and not just to the writers of history books. If the Baathist records are left rotting in courtyards and basements, or stored in some underground bunker in Langley, they will forever remain the focus of the same kinds of rumors and conspiracy theories that the regime’s spies once tried to document, and the true history of Hussein’s Iraq will become impossible to tell. But if the files are credibly maintained, if they are used to write new textbooks, if they are openly discussed, if they are posted on Web sites and displayed in museums, then they will profoundly alter the culture of secrecy that has dominated Iraq, and most of the Middle East, for so long. In Makiya’s words, they can “equip society with the ability to identify red flags” — and to know, in other words, precisely at what moment Iraq’s new government has begun to resemble the old, precisely when the inevitable backsliding has begun. Many administration officials have made impressive-sounding speeches about the need for “democracy” in Iraq. All of their rhetoric means little until Saddam Hussein’s archives are put into neutral, credible Iraqi hands.