Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Iraq’s Top Archivist to Kanan Makiya: Stop, Thief!

with 2 comments

Some of you may remember reading last summer’s Q & A with Kanan Makiya, when he described how, after the 2003 invasion, he pilfered a treasure-trove of interior Baath Party documents from the abandoned regional headquarters building in Baghdad. These documents form the bedrock of the Iraq Memory Foundation, a private nonprofit organization that is trying to build a memorial site in the style of the Holocaust Memorial Museum at the site of the Crossed Swords in Baghdad. At the time of the interview, it didn’t strike me that these were stolen documents and belonged not to Makiya’s organization, but to the people of Iraq.

Last week, the notoriously controversial Iraqi exile, best known for writing Republic of Fear under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil, gave everyone another reason to hate what he’s doing. On Wednesday, journalist John Gravois wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about how Makiya’s Memory Foundation recently handed off “seven million pages of records and other artifacts,” all produced during Saddam’s rule, to a conservative think tank based in California called the Hoover Institution.

“I still can’t understand how and why Mr. Kanan Makiya took all those documents and in what position,” wrote Donny George Youkhanna, the former director of the Iraq Museum, on IraqCrisis. “All those documents are Iraqi property and they should go back immediately to the Iraqi institution that is responsible for the National Documents, that is the National Library and Archives.”

The Chronicle reports that Makiya received permission from the U.S. government in 2005 to ship the documents to the United States, so government contractors could scan all of the documents quickly. Makiya said that he has received permission from numerous Iraqi government officials to keep control of the archives. But this latest deal caused quite an uproar. For one, it raised the hackles of Dr. Sa’ad Eskander, the director general of the Iraq National Library and Archive, who maintains that Baath Party documents are public property that belong in the country’s national archives.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Eskander cited Iraqi laws from 1963 and 1983 and chapters of the Hague and the Geneva Conventions to argue that the documents are Iraq’s property and the Memory Foundation’s possession of them is illegal. For instance, the deal violates the The Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which demands that occupying powers respect and protect cultural property during national and international conflicts.

Makiya told the Chronicle that he would love to return the documents to Iraq. But he told the Chronicle, “Baghdad is just not ready for it.” He worries about whether Iraq’s members of parliament will use the records to smear the reputations of their opponents and critics. “It’s not [Eskander’s] good intentions that I’m worried about,” he said. “It’s his bosses’.”

In 2005, Eskander wrote in a letter to Jeff Spurr, an Islamic and Middle East Specialist at Harvard, that that the Memory Foundation and the Hoover Institution have no right whatsoever to possess the archives. “These documents are highly sensitive from political and human rights perspective, as they contain the names of tens of thousands of people,” he wrote. “They should not be held by any private group, which can use it for its own interests. If you read Iraqi newspapers, then you will understand how the stolen documents are misused for political and personal reasons. Yes, the IMF people are liberals, but they need to respect liberal rules and regulations.”

On IraqCrisis two days ago, Spurr wrote that this situation generally sends a dire message: “It is a sure sign of that government’s lack of commitment to its own laws, and susceptibility to outside pressure. That little is made–in Iraq or in the US–of the unseemly deal by which these documents were surreptitiously spirited out of Baghdad by the US military, similarly reflects on this lack of governmental integrity. How is the INLA to pursue its legal right to the tens of millions of documents seized by the US Army in 2003, if such behavior is supported in late 2005 and further countenanced in 2008?”

As for Dr. Eskander who won the 2007 Academic Freedom Award from the Middle East Studies Association for helping transform the decimated national library into a space with a staff of over 400 stocked with computers and a reading room for scholars and students. Spurr writes: “Dr. Eskander’s every declaration, and his remarkable work to rebuild and rejuvenate the INLA make his institution the very–indeed the only–unequivocal expression of the values voiced and purportedly adhered to by Kanan Makiya himself to be found in Iraq at present. That it would be Makiya himself who most publicly undermines the INLA’s position is shameful at best.”

In the letter, Eskander wrote that he offered to work with members of the Memory Foundation in archiving the documents, but this went unanswered. “I asked our Deputy Minister, Maysoon Al-Damluji, to talk to the head of the IMF in Baghdad, Mr. Mustafa Al-Kadhimiy. He refused to talk to us or even to acknowledge the existence of any Iraqi legislation governing archival issues. By the way Al-Damluji is a friend of Kanan Makiya,” he wrote. “I tried in vain to tell the IMF people that they were violating Iraqi laws, and that they should respect the rule of laws if they are true democrats.”

Jeff Spurr had some harsh words to say about Gravois’ work, writing that the article is inaccurate and patronizes Eskander. Gravois told Spurr that he is working on a longer piece about the issue. I eagerly await its publication…

Photo: Outside the Iraq National Library and Archive. Courtesy the Mind Matters blog.


Written by Peter Holslin

January 27, 2008 at 9:09 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Essential reading as well is Jeff Spurr’s important article “Iraqi Libraries and Archives in Peril: Survival in a time of Invasion, Chaos, and Civil Conflict, A Report”

    Charles Ellwood Jones

    January 28, 2008 at 10:17 am

  2. Very interesting article. I agree with Dr. George that the documents should be returned to Iraq.Here is a video I directed about the looting of the Iraqi National Museum. It consists of an interview with Dr. Donny George, the former director, and images of the destruction. below is the link.

    Stuart Draper

    February 14, 2008 at 6:07 pm

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