A REGION INFLAMED: THE PAST; A Paper Trail Follows Iraqi Merchants of Tyranny
By JOEL BRINKLEY
The New York Times
Nov. 24, 2003
In the end, after the secret investigations, the middle-of-the-night arrests, the obsequious genuflections to Saddam Hussein, a common passion drove these members of Iraq's Baath Party to excel at their special occupation. It was all about the money.
Just as soon as any of them apprehended a malefactor and saw to his execution, or immediately after rounding up an army deserter, amputating his ears and arranging to have food rations denied to his family, Baath Party functionaries filled out forms in triplicate, then forwarded them to headquarters with a note asking: please send my bonus.
That is one finding from a review of documents among 2.5 million pages of records taken from a series of underground vaults beneath the Baath Party's national headquarters here -- much of the documentary record of the party's work over a decade or two.
The records show that party functionaries often regarded the party as if it were a rich uncle. In December 2000, Yousef Mahmoud wrote to Baath headquarters, saying: "I am passing through difficult times. I just got married and have lots of debts. Please send 250,000 dinar," about $125. A short time later, the records say, he got a check for $75.
Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor and author, said he stumbled upon the records last summer while trying to save a monument to the party's founder, Michel Aflaq, that was scheduled for demolition. A few years ago, the United States gave Mr. Makiya custody of another large trove of Iraqi documents seized in Kuwait and northern Iraq after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and so he won permission from the occupation authorities to take custody of the new papers as well.
Mr. Makiya intends to share them with the public by opening a museum and archive that he calls the Memory Foundation. The Americans plan to give him some of the financing for the project, and he is soliciting the rest.
The Baath Party was Mr. Hussein's political base, but it grew to be much more. The party was one element of a three-sided security apparatus that kept Iraqis cowed. The other two were the army and the Mukhabarat secret service.
If the files are to be believed, party members investigated ordinary citizens, and party apparatchiks won promotion based on the number of perceived political enemies they arrested and punished.
The Communists of the Soviet bloc used similar systems of control, and delving into the issue of who was spying on whom has produced tensions in countries as records have been unearthed and made public. In Iraq, many people have aggressively tried to find records of the Hussein era. But their goal, generally, is to learn the fate of missing family members -- not necessarily to implicate individual Baathists.
The party's ubiquitous influence has locked the nation in a divisive debate over de-Baathification -- whether every party member or just its most senior players should be denied employment in the new Iraq. Mr. Makiya hopes the membership records among his documents will help the new government decide who among them were truly pernicious.
"At the end of the day," Mr. Makiya said, "we will see whether Iraqi society can handle the burden of so much memory. It's about shame, it's about acknowledgment, it's about settling something within yourself."
For now, the records sit in a warren of rooms in the basement of Mr. Makiya's ancestral home, in a wealthy section of Baghdad. He permitted this reporter to browse among them at will, and some of the folders offered bold titles on their spines that were immediately intriguing.
"Mass Graves," said one, dated 2000.
Inside was a record of a somber declaration by Mr. Hussein, as transcribed by a party acolyte. "The Comrade Leader, may God protect him and make him prosper, on the subject of the martyrs of back stabbing and betrayal, would like to document that saboteurs and traitors have committed crimes against martyrs of the party after the Mother of all Battles. This issue should be addressed in the fastest possible way."
In other words, after the first gulf war, Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south attacked and killed dozens of Baath Party workers. Nine years later, Mr. Hussein decided to document those deaths.
Initial entries show that party officers did not immediately grasp the true value of Mr. Hussein's order. One writer dutifully recounted the killing of the governor of Sulaimaniya, a Kurdish town in the north.
"He was tortured and dragged to death" behind a car racing through town, the account said. "Please add him to the file."
Soon, however, party members saw the silver lining. Mr. Hussein's declaration described the dead as "martyrs of the party." When party members died as martyrs -- killed in battle defending the party or the country -- surviving family members were awarded special payments for life. So, according to the paper trail in Mr. Makiya's basement, a stampede began, of family members trying to clamber aboard the gravy train. Dozens filed declarations describing the heroic acts of their long-dead relatives.
"My son, Abid Badr Hussein, fought at the police station in Erbil for the cause of Saddam Hussein and died as a martyr," wrote the dead man's father, Aqub, to party leaders. "Please send the amount that was promised," about $75 a month.
Another folder titled "Martyrs Regulations" notes that the president "has decided to give the martyrs of the Saddam's Muslim War (otherwise known as the Iran-Iraq war) and the Mother of all Battles a higher-ranking martyrs' position, " which would entitle families "to more generosity and benefits." That generated a raft of appeals.
But some requests, the paperwork indicated, were turned down. For example, party members appealed on behalf of the family of Salman Khalid Hamadi, director general of the party's Basra office.
"He was transporting volunteers to the headquarters, conducting his duty," the appellant wrote. "When he opened his trunk to get his bag, he was struck by a backhoe and killed. His comrades of the Basra branch suggested he should be a martyr." The party disagreed.
The colleagues of another party member who was shot by a robber and killed outside the traffic bureau, where he had apparently gone to talk his way out of a traffic fine, declared the death "a treacherous betrayal." He did not win martyrdom either.
Not everything party members did was a quest for money, though. For example, a cadre of party workers was responsible for monitoring every senior high school student in the nation for ideological loyalty and potential party membership. The records were in large ledgers, each a yard wide and two feet thick. The names of students were listed vertically, and across the top were 10 political and social issues on which they were judged -- the student's position on the Mother of all Battles and the uprising that followed, whether the student was a friend of the president or had any relatives who were enemies of the party.
In several books, all the columns were checked with ditto marks -- or simply a line, top to bottom, showing that everyone was found to be in compliance. That was so even when, for example, the functionary had written in the notes field for the 17-year-old Walid al-Janabi, "His uncles participated in events and were arrested and their fates are unknown even now."
Looking at the ditto marks, Hassam Mneimneh, director of the documents project, said, "it looks like they didn't really care."
Some files showed unusual zeal, though. Among those were several labeled "Rumors." The party apparently kept a staff of people who loitered around coffee shops and other public places to eavesdrop on conversations. Back in the office, they filled out "rumor reporting forms."
A daily list of rumors was published and circulated with the heading: "Highly secret, very urgent!" Examples: "In the coming few days there is going to be a return to the days of back stabbing and treachery," and "on Thursday Saddam Hussein, may God protect him, will hold a military procession, and the Zionist American air force will bomb it."
Party officers were responsible for confirming or refuting each rumor. A common formulation was, "This rumor is completely without truth and has been determined to be for evil intent."
Members of another group who showed ardor for their work, not surprisingly, were the party officers who dealt directly with Mr. Hussein. One file kept a record of Mr. Hussein's orders to the nation's tightly controlled newspapers. Mr. Hussein, it appeared, read the papers closely and issued daily demands based on what he read.
One letter from his chief of staff to the editor of a Baghdad daily, said, "In regard to the poem on page four, the president has ordered the following. 'Music should be written for it, and it should be sung.' "
Another letter ordered a newspaper to redo a cartoon that showed a soldier carrying an Iraqi flag. He had driven the flagpole into the heart of an octopus wrapped in an American flag.
"The president has ordered: 'The drawing is to be redrawn taking care that the face of the soldier is an Iraqi face, not the face of a foreigner.' "
The paper printed the altered cartoon the next day. But this time the soldier had a mustache.