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Iraqi Archivists Appeal for Congress’ Help

A permanent facility and museum is needed to preserve and memorialize records, artifacts and oral histories related to the oppression Iraqis experienced under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party regime, the head of a nonprofit group told a Library of Congress symposium Tuesday.

To these ends, the Iraq Memory Foundation, which formed two years ago to document all aspects of Iraqi life during the Baathist era, is currently working to build a Remembrance Museum in the heart of Baghdad, which would house millions of documents related to the regime’s abuses, artwork dealing with the repression and, ultimately, “tens of thousands” of interviews with Iraqi survivors of the atrocities.

This month, the foundation formalized a 40-year lease with the mayor of Baghdad for a one-square kilometer parcel in what was Hussein’s “Crossed Swords” Ceremonial Parade Grounds for the museum site.

“We need to make a place in Baghdad for remembrance,” Ala’ al-Tamimi, the city’s first elected mayor, said at the forum convened to discuss the documents’ preservation. “Every citizen in Baghdad should know the truth of what has happened in Iraq.”

Kanan Makiya, founder and president of the group, estimated that “no less than $100 million” will be needed to develop the remembrance site. In the coming months, he said, the foundation plans to ask Congress for a “big gesture” of financial support, though he made it clear he expected other nations to also chip in. Specifically, Makiya said he hopes Japan, whose Mitsubishi Corp. constructed “the horrific edifices” which currently stand on the site, to contribute funds. To date, he said, the foundation has received $1 million in seed money from the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Of the foundation’s 11 million documents, 8.5 million of these have been collected since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in April 2003. The documents include a wealth of Baathist party correspondence and reports and deal with everything from the Iran-Iraq War to the Kurdish insurgency and Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds.

The foundation is currently in the process of digitizing, indexing and classifying the records, which span 1968 to 2003, and are often stored in less-than-ideal conditions. Archivists in Baghdad must deal with a variety of “pests” ranging “from mice to bullets,” said Hassan Mneimneh, director of the foundation’s documentation project.

“It’s only 35 years but all these documents are on bad quality paper,” said Mary-Jane Deeb, head of the LOC’s Near East Section, adding that the Library was willing to offer advice to the foundation, if asked. “Were we to do nothing at all with the documents, in a decade there’d probably be very little left.”

While the foundation has put a small portion of its trove of documents online, in the future, Makiya said, a law needs to be enacted by the Iraqi parliament to regulate the use of the records.

The foundation is also seeking 37 million additional papers held by the U.S. government. “We are lobbying very hard to be the recipient of those,” Makiya said.

In the summer of 2004, the interim Iraqi government issued a decree essentially making the foundation “the archivist of the nation for the special collection of documents that deal with the crimes and the conditions created by Saddam Hussein,” foundation spokeswoman Riva Levinson said.

The foundation grew out of a Harvard University project established by Makiya at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to preserve and analyze documents related to the Baath Party.

In related news, the Library of Congress announced at the symposium that four librarians from the National Library of Iraq have been invited to come to the LOC this spring for training in techniques aimed at dealing with the continued preservation of some 40,000 historical documents. LOC officials have been advising the Iraqi library on their preservation.

In late 2003, an LOC and State Department team traveled to Baghdad to assess conditions at the Iraqi library, which was burned and looted during the U.S. invasion.

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