Al Arabiya has a piece this week by Jawad Al-Hattab called "Israel suspected of seeking to 'steal' ancient Iraqi manuscripts transferred to U.S." that begins with a rather significant allegation: "The Iraqi minister of culture has said that the United States is delaying the return of original copies of ancient manuscripts that were illegally smuggled out of Iraq and reportedly sold to Israel." The article states:
The manuscripts are part of the Jewish archive that was found in the basement of the Iraqi intelligence building following the 2003 American invasion.
The archive was reportedly transferred to the United States for “maintenance purposes” provided that it would be returned to the Iraqi government by mid-2006. The archive, however, has not yet been transferred back to the Iraqi Archeology and Heritage Association.
Iraqi media reports suggest that Israel was behind the stalling of the delivery of the archives and that the Jewish state was planning to obtain the historic manuscripts from its ally the United States. Arab League Deputy Secretary General Ahmed ben Helli has confirmed attempts by Israel to steal ancient Iraqi archives.
“Iraq has been subjected to the biggest theft of its manuscripts and historic treasures,” he said. “Israel is accomplice to this.”For earlier coverage of the debate over the return of the Iraqi Jewish Archives see here and here.
The Al-Arabiya piece also quotes Saad Eskander, head of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, regarding the larger group of seized Iraqi records that "filled 48,000 boxes and containers." Eskander asserts that the U.S. "has 90 percent of Iraq's historic archives in its possession." The piece also states that "Deputy Minister of Culture Taher al-Hamoud said that the United States was delaying whenever asked by the Iraqi government to bring the collection back."
I have not previously heard the "90 percent of Iraq's historic archives" figure cited by Eskander, although in late January 2004 the Washington Post had an editorial called "Iraq's Archives" that used "80 percent." Despite the fact it is now more than 8 years old, the rest of that WashPo editorial also still seems just as relevant today:
Not surprisingly, it hasn't yet been at the top of anybody's priority list. But the long-term fate of the archives of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime deserves more attention than it has received from U.S. authorities in Iraq. When coalition forces captured Baghdad, they took control of some 80 percent of the former Iraqi regime's documents -- hundreds of millions of pieces of paper -- and moved them to an undisclosed location outside Iraq. The only people who have been allowed to look at them are members of the Iraqi Survey Group, the U.S. intelligence unit seeking weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Although some in the Pentagon leadership say they are aware of the issue, there are still no clear plans for these documents, and officials seem uncertain as to whether decisions about them will be made in Washington or Baghdad, by the CIA or the Pentagon. Yet their fate is critical to the future stability of Iraq. These files contain names of victims and names of torturers -- and could therefore play a role in revenge killings and blackmail, as some of the documents not under coalition control already do. More important, they will also eventually provide the first real history of the regime. They should therefore form the centerpiece of the trial of Saddam Hussein. Yet, though it seems some coalition investigators may be allowed access to the files to begin looking for human rights abuses, no Iraqis have been given access and there is no indication that they will be.
This is a mistake. As long as the documents are solely under U.S. control, they will serve as a focus for rumors and conspiracy theories. As long as there is no general law governing the use of such documents, there will continue to be arguments in Iraq over who has the right to control them. Already, disputes have broken out over the proper "ownership" of some of the documents not under coalition control. There are also rumors in Iraq of U.S. plans to divide what should be the country's national archive among different groups and political parties. What is needed now is not a division of the collection but a clear set of rules governing the storage and use of the documents, which must be returned to Iraq and placed under Iraqi control as soon as possible.