Iraq demands return of its Jewish archive

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

The soldiers came looking for weapons of mass destruction. What they found in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein's secret police headquarters was a legacy of destruction -- the demise of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world.

There was a treasure trove of Torahs and Haggadas, centuries old. And there were marriage records, university applications, financial documents -- the living record of a community, seized by the Mukhabarat from the homes of Jews as they fled Iraq under pressure and amid persecution, with only a handful remaining.

Now comes the historical conundrum: Who owns these materials?

In the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, the thousands of sodden documents were spirited out of the country with an assist from then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney's office and a vague promise of their return once they had been restored. With the materials still sitting in a College Park office building, stabilized but with mold on them, the Iraqi government is demanding that they be shipped back, saying they are the property of the Iraqi people.

"They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years," said Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. "It is time for our property to be repatriated."

A high-level Iraqi delegation, led by Deputy Culture Minister Taher al-Humoud, met Thursday with senior State Department officials to press for the return of the artifacts.

But others, including many involved in saving the materials, say that they belong to the Jews who fled, or their descendants -- many of whom live in Israel.

"I don't see any reason for it to go back to Iraq, because if it is the patrimony of the Jewish community of Iraq, then wherever they are it's theirs," Harold Rhode, a former Defense Department official, told the Jerusalem Post last month. "When they left, they would have taken it with them had they been able to take it with them. You don't abandon Torahs."

The State Department does not dispute Iraq's claim to the documents. But another concern is the condition of the materials, which total 3,500 tagged items, including clumps of paper yet to be separated. They were found floating in three feet of sewage water because U.S. bombs had burst the pipes in the Mukhabarat's basement.

Preservation efforts

Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives and Records Administration, said the agency takes no position on who owns the documents but believes the materials need much more preservation work. "They continue to be very fragile and have mold on them," she said. "There are health implications to materials that have mold."

NARA has spent less than $1 million stabilizing the material, Cooper said. The agency's staff members recently completed an item-by-item assessment and are in the final stages of estimating the cost of a full preservation, including digitizing images of the pages. An NARA estimate in 2003 pegged the cost at $1.5 million to $3 million.

Sumaidaie said he had been told that the cost could be as high as $6 million. But he said he thinks that the materials are stable enough so that no "further damage or decay can take place" and that Iraq can handle any additional restoration work.

After the discovery of the materials by troops looking for illegal weapons, Rhode, working at the time in Iraq, sought help from Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile leader and at the time a U.S. favorite. Chalabi provided a pump, bins and other help. The materials were left in the sun to dry, but when Rhode learned that freezing kills mold, they were transferred to a refrigerator truck running 24 hours a day.

"It was absolutely awful. No one was interested," Rhode said. "And then very simply [former Russian dissident Natan] Sharansky, who phoned me from time to time when I was there to make sure I was still alive -- I've known him for many years -- called Cheney. The American government, all of a sudden, got very interested."

With the apparent blessing of what was left of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the materials were flown to Texas to be freeze-dried and then were transferred to College Park for preservation and restoration. The State Department says that when the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004, it gave the Ministry of Culture the right to demand the documents upon written request.

Point of contention

Dov. S. Zakheim, a senior Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, is opposed to sending the materials back to Iraq. "I have no sympathy for a government which stole it from the rightful owners and then a successor government saying it belongs to them," he said.

Iraq would be willing to consider individual claims to the documents, Sumaidaie said, but the question of giving them to descendants is "not for us a matter for dispute or discussion." He pledged that the documents would be made available in Iraq to any researchers.

Sumaidaie noted that "we had a huge amount of plunder of our historical artifacts as a result of the American intervention." Any full accounting of what is owed to whom, he said, "is not going to be very favorable to our American friends."

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