Saddam's Spy Files: Key To Healing Or More Hurting?

Iraqi conservator works on a manuscript at the National Library and Archives in Baghdad in 2007. i

An Iraqi conservator repairs damaged manuscripts at the Iraqi National Library and Archives in Baghdad in December 2007. The Iraqi government is negotiating with U.S. authorities the return of millions of documents seized by U.S. troops and sent to Washington after the 2003 invasion -- including records compiled for Saddam Hussein's regime under its vast and brutal domestic spying operation. The library's director, Saad Eskander, says the return of the files is part of "the democratization of information." Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi conservator works on a manuscript at the National Library and Archives in Baghdad in 2007.

An Iraqi conservator repairs damaged manuscripts at the Iraqi National Library and Archives in Baghdad in December 2007. The Iraqi government is negotiating with U.S. authorities the return of millions of documents seized by U.S. troops and sent to Washington after the 2003 invasion -- including records compiled for Saddam Hussein's regime under its vast and brutal domestic spying operation. The library's director, Saad Eskander, says the return of the files is part of "the democratization of information."

Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images

Seven years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq is still trying to win the return of voluminous records and archives compiled for Saddam's Baath Party, many of which are currently being held in the U.S.

Some Iraqis say those millions of documents hold the key to national reconciliation, but others warn that Iraq may not be ready to unlock these secrets of betrayal and brutality.

Riyad al-Rubaiee, a 46-year-old Iraqi, still has a vivid memory from 2003. As the Iraqi government vanished amid the U.S.-led invasion, people scrambled to loot the files of Saddam's secret police from various offices tucked around Baghdad. In one, he came across a man standing amid the chaos, a file in one hand and tears streaming down his face.

"He just kept sobbing, 'Is it possible? Is it possible?' He was holding the file of his brother, a member of the Communist Party who was arrested in 1979. And he'd just learned that the people who had informed on his brother, the people who got him executed, were his own cousin and brother-in-law," Rubaiee says.

U.S. soldiers take away Iraqi government documents in June 2003 i

A U.S. soldier hauls documents during a June 2003 raid conducted at a community center in Baghdad. Jim Krane/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Krane/AP
U.S. soldiers take away Iraqi government documents in June 2003

A U.S. soldier hauls documents during a June 2003 raid conducted at a community center in Baghdad.

Jim Krane/AP

Growing up in a tough neighborhood of Sadr City, Rubaiee thought of himself as an Iraqi and a Muslim and a supporter of Saddam Hussein.

But after fighting for his country in the war against Iran in the 1980s, Rubaiee returned home to find that Saddam had jailed, tortured and killed many Iraqis at home.

He took part in one anti-Saddam demonstration, and he and his friends would gather at night and talk about what they would like to do to the ruling Baathists if they ever got the chance.

Then, without warning, the secret police raids began. His friends were arrested and he only just escaped with his uncle. Years later, he realized how the regime had ferreted out his barely formed political views: A prominent Baathist had been using his sisters to glean information from the women and children in the neighborhood.

"They'd go to a wedding and chat with all the women, the same for funerals. You might see them by the front gate all day, watching who goes where and who's talking with whom," Rubaiee says.

'The Democratization Of Information'

Much of the paper trail from Saddam's decades of spying was badly damaged in the post-invasion looting, and millions of documents were spirited away to the U.S., where they remain. A slender, soft-spoken Iraqi named Saad Eskander is trying to change that.

Eskander is the director of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, an aging facility soon to be replaced by a new, modern building being constructed next door. He has a young staff of restorers, trained in the latest conservation techniques from Europe. They are painstakingly freezing, drying and restoring documents. The archives also are being digitized and made available on the Internet.

Eskander's quiet librarian's demeanor hides a fierce belief in the power of information — to imprison a society or to free it.

"From a closed society to an open society, that is our slogan," he says. Eskander says it's not only the Baath Party, but all extremists — from the left and the right — who are unhappy about what he calls "the democratization of information."

Eskander says it's crucial to retrieve the spy files as soon as possible because it will take years for Iraq to recover from the effects of a spying operation of staggering pervasion and brutality.

"You are spied on by your neighbors, by your work colleagues, by your fellow students at university, every Iraqi was spied on — even those who were part of the regime and had close links to the regime — so the leaders of the regime lived in permanent paranoia," he says.

More Than A Political Collapse

Perhaps understandably, Eskander says there has never been a dictatorship like Saddam's. But other countries might dispute that. The Oscar-winning 2007 film The Lives Of Others explored the institutionalized spying of the East German Stasi. In one scene, the main character, a famous East German playwright, sits in a research room after the fall of the Berlin Wall, leafing through his own surveillance files.

As he turns the pages, the playwright comes to see himself not as a human being but as a case, code-named "Laszlo," and there is pain but not surprise in his face as he reads how his lover, before she committed suicide, was forced repeatedly to betray him.

Critics say The Lives Of Others is a compelling glimpse into the way a repressive spying apparatus over time eats away at the social fabric holding a community together.

Eskander says this is what happened to Iraq. Yes, he says, it was naive of America to believe its soldiers would be welcomed by Iraqis instantly ready to build a democratic society — and the reasons why are buried in the spy files.

"So the collapse of the regime, it was not a political collapse, it was a social collapse as well. The invasion just opened the gates for all the bad phenomena that took root under Saddam Hussein," Eskander says.

Potential Tool For Healing

There is considerable debate, both inside and outside of Iraq, about what to do with the spy archives. Many were collected by the Iraq Memory Foundation, a U.S.-funded project dedicated to helping Iraqis come to terms with the atrocities committed under Saddam. The foundation turned the files over to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University to be digitized.

The U.S. government, which under President George W. Bush initially took a keen interest in the Baath Party files, is now adopting a hands-off approach.

"This should be the subject of discussion between Hoover and the Iraqi Memory Foundation and the Iraqi government," says Phillip Frayne, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. "In other words, they are in the custody of the Hoover Institution right now, not in the custody of the U.S. government."

But what would it mean for a still-struggling Iraqi society if the secret police files were suddenly revealed? The Iraq Memory Foundation says those files can be a powerful tool for reconciliation and healing — if they are handled properly.

In a 2005 interview with NPR, Hassan Mneimneh, one of the foundation's directors, said other countries have taken a variety of approaches, some of which it views as extreme, such as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"This is an extreme model where, basically, victim and perpetrator face each other. Another extreme model, far closer to Iraq, is the Lebanese model. A traumatic civil war ends, a page is turned as if nothing has actually happened — this is a model almost of denial," Mneimneh told NPR.

"Between these two extremes, we believe Iraqi society is going to try to find its level of comfort, and our role is clearly to advocate for one that is more toward openness," he said.

Too Much At Once?

But victims of Saddam's spying regime, such as Rubaiee, have a very different view. When asked whatever happened to the Baathist who used to spy on Rubaiee's neighborhood, he calmly slides a finger across his throat. He says this is not Germany, and Iraqi isn't ready to have decades of betrayal revealed all at once.

"For us Iraqis, our tribal nature is still prevailing, our democracy is too new. There would be killing in the streets," he says.

Given the issues of preservation and politics still to be worked through, Iraqis are likely to have quite a bit of time before they know if and when the spy files will return. Then Eskander may find out if the information Saddam used to wound a nation can also help to heal it.

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