Professor sets out to document Hussein's Atrocities

By Stephanie V. Siek, The Boston Globe
March 6, 2005

WALTHAM -- The brutal horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime lie within millions of neat, handwritten pages, the legacy of a police state so meticulous that it collected reams of paper documenting even the rumors that wafted through student unions and street cafes.

They lie, too, in the stories of Iraqis who were tortured, hounded, detained, and exiled as dissidents, intellectuals, or simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time during one of Hussein's mass arrests.

An organization founded by an Iraqi exile aims to find and archive every one of the documents, and tell as many stories as possible.

The Iraq Memory Foundation is collecting paperwork, oral histories, and artifacts pertaining to the abuses and atrocities committed by Hussein and the Ba'ath Party from the time they came to power in 1968 until their overthrow by US troops in 2003.

An Iraqi provisional government would have been the best way to go... People have to be involved in their own liberation, even if it's messy.
It's a herculean task -- the foundation has obtained more than 11 million pages of documents and is trying to get millions more. But the group's founder, Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University, thinks its work is essential to Iraq's development into a democratic society that values individuals over ideology.

''Looking at one's own past is deeply constitutive of who one becomes in the future," Makiya said. ''With one's past, you can't have an identity that starts from scratch . . . We need something new, something humbler, something that rests on the individuality of the human being."

Since shortly after Hussein's fall from power, the foundation has been working on a budget funded by small grants and donations with a staff of seven people in Washington and 25 in Baghdad.

Makiya, an Iraqi exile and writer who holds Brandeis's Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Chair in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, was granted an extended leave to organize the foundation's operation but returned to Brandeis on Tuesday to discuss the materials in its collection.

Makiya was a leading supporter of the US decision to invade but is a critic of the occupation, which he calls ''a central strategic error."

''An Iraqi provisional government would have been the best way to go," Makiya said. ''From there, many errors start because along with that comes the arrogance, the thinking you can do it all yourself -- give them a proper traffic code, give them a perfect constitution, et cetera, et cetera, and then go away and leave democracy and it's all perfect. It doesn't work like that. People have to be involved in their own liberation, even if it's messy."

The recent elections in Iraq have dealt suicide bombers and other insurgents a heavy blow, he said, because such people were counting on the process to fall apart. Makiya maintains that the goal of the insurgency in Iraq is not to oust US occupying forces, but to destabilize Iraq along ethnic lines by convincing Sunni Muslims that they are being targeted by the interim government and by provoking other ethnic groups.

Makiya said the democratic momentum that began in Iraq with elections is spreading throughout the Middle East. He cited Lebanon's popular uprising against Syrian influence that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami and the decision of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to allow multiple candidates in presidential elections.

But Makiya's focus is on Iraq's past, which he has been illuminating since his acclaimed 1989 book, ''The Republic of Fear," exposed Hussein's brutality toward his people.

Makiya said the enormous number of documents his team has assembled is a testament to the regime's inability to trust anyone. Every order, every correspondence between officials was a way of keeping tabs not only on citizens, but also on the bureaucrats acting as agents of the regime.

Our project is a cultural project. It's not about blaming people or elevating victims...unless we in Iraq come to terms with the things we did to one another, history is doomed to repeat itself.
In a cache of documents found in the basement of the central Ba'ath Party headquarters, researchers found more than 2,000 ledgers, including full profiles of every secondary student in Iraq -- not only basic information such as name and address, but also whether the individual was a member of the party and was involved in party activities, and whether any family member down to a third cousin had been imprisoned or identified as a political prisoner. Paperwork found elsewhere reports that the parents of an executed political dissident were ''liquidated" in Baghdad; another, dated Oct. 29, 1988, recounts the execution of a group of 46 people in the district of Sulaymaniyah.

If the documents represent the views and actions of the officials responsible for carrying out the government's will, Makiya said, the hundreds of oral testimonies that the foundation hopes to collect will give voice to the victims. The foundation has videotaped 20 oral testimonies and has edited them as a weekly series of 50 interviews to be broadcast on Iraqi television stations, and eventually throughout the Arab world. The foundation is also collecting artwork done by victims of the regime as well as perpetrators of its abuses.

''Our project is a cultural project. It's not about blaming people or elevating victims," Makiya said. ''It is a project rooted in the notion that unless we in Iraq come to terms with the things we did to one another, history is doomed to repeat itself."

The foundation grew out of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project, which Makiya founded in 1992 while at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

Its successor's goal is almost dauntingly ambitious.

Workers can digitally scan between 50,000 and 100,000 pages per month, depending on whether the ongoing violence in Iraq allows the employees in the Baghdad office to get to work. At that rate, it will take nine to 18 years just to scan the documents the group already has.

Eventually, Makiya hopes that all the documents and oral testimonies can be digitized, linked together, and made accessible to the public, so that visitors can type a name into a database and pull up enough information to piece together the story of a missing or killed loved one. His vision also includes a museum that would house all the materials as well as artifacts from the regime.

The interim government and city of Baghdad recently signed a 40-year lease giving the foundation the ability to develop the former central parade ground in Baghdad, known for the monumental sculptures of forearms raising crossed swords that form an arch over the entrance. A campaign to solicit the tens of millions of dollars that Makiya estimates it will take to develop the site begins March 8 with a symposium at the Library of Congress.

Among the documents Makiya wants most is something he has not been able to find: the file on himself. ''I seek it avidly," he said.