Iraq asks U.S. to return millions of archive documents

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s national archive has asked the United States to return millions of historical documents seized by U.S. troops in the mayhem that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003, along with its Jewish archive.

The papers include intelligence reports on Iraqis kept by Saddam Hussein’s dreaded secret police, detailed plans for massacres of his regime’s enemies and information on weapons arsenals, said Saad Eskander, director of the Iraqi national library and archives.

The Jewish archive, found soaked in sewage in the basement of Saddam’s intelligence service headquarters in Baghdad, was taken to the United States for restoration under an agreement between the two countries and will be returned to Iraq.

Iraqi and U.S. officials met recently in California for talks on the documents.

“This was the first time that Iraq presented an official demand to retrieve all the documents, not only the Jewish archive,” Eskander told Reuters in an interview this week.

The documents include historical, political and legal papers, some of which may be needed to solve crimes and charge suspects, he said.

“These documents are sensitive ... no less important than the antiquities, if not more important,” Eskander said.

The archive documenting Jewish history in predominantly Muslim Iraq contains books, documents and a codex of the Torah.

“In 2003 it was discovered by the U.S. forces. It was submerged in sewage water,” Eskander said. “This is why they decided to take it to the United States to preserve and maintain it.”

Thousands of Jews once lived in Iraq but the formation of Israel in 1948 prompted an aggressive government campaign to displace them as Arab nationalism swept the Middle East. Iraqi sociologists say only a few Jews remain in the country.

Eskander said Iraq plans to preserve the Jewish archive, 75 percent of which is written in Hebrew, and put it on display on the Internet.

“This is to show that Iraq is an open country, not a fanatic or closed country,” he said. “Our purpose is not to hide the Jewish archive. On the contrary, Iraq wants to show the world that there was a Jewish archive in Iraq and Iraq does not hide this side of its history.”

Iraqi officials still need to figure out how to move the delicate papers to avoid damage, and how to store them in controlled conditions once they are returned, he added.

Eskander said Saddam’s Baath Party archive is stored at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Jewish archive is at the National Archives in Washington and other papers are held by the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Editing by Jim Loney and Michael Taylor