Iraqi Scholars Plea for German Help
On his first trip to Germany's archive on East Germany's secret police, Iraqi archivist Hassan Mneimneh was speechless.
The rows and rows of file folders, neatly categorized and containing the dirty secrets of the German Democratic Republic is exactly the type of place he hopes to see in Baghdad one day.
"I felt as if I had walked into an ideal future, ten years later," said Mneimneh, who has been gathering documents on the Saddam Hussein regime together with the prominent Iraqi author Kanan Makiya for more than 12 years. "What you have here, we can only dream about."
The Berlin trip was part of the Iraqi Memory Foundation, a Washington-based organization founded by Makiya. Over the past 12 years the author and Brandeis University professor has mined information out of thousands of pages of documents captured by Iraqi Kurdish fighters following their insurgence in 1991. Following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in May 2003, that number jumped to hundreds of millions of pages.
Now, Makiya and Mneimneh face the Herculean task of tracking down the estimated 350 million pages of documents, covering everything from the daily correspondence in Hussein's Baathist regime to the location of victims killed and buried by Hussein's secret services. The two believe no one can help better than the Germans, who have dealt with a sordid past not once, but twice.
"We are here to learn from Germany's experiences because it is more thorough than any other country we have looked at," said Makiya. "We desperately need you inside Iraq, helping make these decisions."
Birthler can't promise much
The Birthler Authority, which gets its name from director Marianne Birthler, has spent the past 12 years collecting and poring over the records of the Stasi, the former East German secret police. The experience of its archivists, as well as the systems and laws created to allow public access to the records would be of immense use, said Makiya.
Birthler said she would be happy to lend any assistance, but admitted that as a government agency, she couldn't promise much. The German government, one of the staunchest opponents to the Iraq war, has so far refused to involve itself on a large scale in Iraq until the United Nations is given greater control. Makiya urged Germany to take more initiative.
"Don't wait for the United Nations, we need you now," he pleaded in front of cameras and microphones at the press conference.
Paper trail crucial in prosecuting Saddam
On the long list of major problems that need to be taken care of in Iraq, a documentation center might not seem like such a big priority. But the acquisition, storage and examination of such documents has taken on greater urgency as regime leaders, including Saddam Hussein, come into coalition forces custody.
"Now is the time we should be working to provide evidentiary support to try these people, "Makiya said. "We need a paper trail for the regime itself."
There are an estimated 350 million pages of documents surviving from the Baathist regime. About 80 percent of them are currently in coalition forces' hands. The remaining 20 percent are split between political parties and scavengers, said Mneimneh.
The lion's share of the work in the coming months will be convincing people to hand over documents, or at least detailing the contents of their archives. A mammoth task, considering the Memory Foundation has almost no employees and no funding aside from a $1 million pledge from the U.S. Congress.
Mneimneh, who works out of an office in Baghdad's high-security zone, says they need $10 million in order to get the most important documents, those relating to victims and regime atrocities, categorized and examined in the next two to five years.
"An archive like this, down the line, will change the way Iraqis think of themselves in an infinitely better way," said Makiya.
Andreas Tzortzis, © DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2004