For years now, author and Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya has documented the atrocities of Saddam Hussein's regime. He recorded stories of brutality and repression in two well-known books and lobbied heavily for the dictator's ouster. Today, though, he's still on the hunt.
Hussein, of course, is in U.S. custody, found days ago hiding just outside his home town of Tikrit. But it's the paper trail the regime left behind that Makiya wants. Those documents, he says, will be the core of the Iraq Memory Foundation, an archive that he hopes to establish so that Iraqis -- and the entire Arab world -- will never forget the 35 years under Hussein.
In the early 1990s, Makiya put 18 tons of the regime's intelligence and military files online after they had been captured in Kurdistan. Later, he added 800,000 pages of Iraqi army files retrieved from Kuwait. In September he acquired a cache of 3 million pages of Baath Party records from Baghdad.
And yesterday, at 8:30 a.m., he was standing before the conservative American Enterprise Institute looking for support.
"We often move from one brutal regime to the next," said Makiya, dressed in a tan jacket and wrinkled blue shirt, as he lobbied for his foundation. Holding on to history, he said, could help prevent that.
"The person of Saddam stands at the pinnacle of a system of power that also needs to be put under scrutiny," he said. "We need to indict the entire system that he created and that created him. If it is the system itself that is indicted -- and nothing does that better than the paper record -- we will have affected Arab politics."
Makiya has spent the last few days in Washington, participating in briefings at the Capitol, meeting with State Department officials and speaking at policy institutes. His goal is to raise $20 million in two years to organize the documents in a searchable database.
Along with documents, the foundation's center will include 100 video profiles of victims of the Hussein regime as well as Iraqi artwork produced under Baath Party rule, he says.
Makiya's collection paints a nuanced portrait of the Baathist bureaucracy. There are detailed reports on civilians, their conversations, their associations, their loyalty -- and accounts of their arrests, their torture and their deaths.
The former Brandeis University professor of Middle East studies says he hopes the documents will be used to vet applicants for positions in the new regime for their Baathist affiliations. In the upcoming Iraqi elections, politicians may use their own stashes of documents to "out" their rivals' Baath Party connections.
Makiya soon plans to present a motion to the Iraqi Governing Council that would regulate the use of documents, based on East German laws for dealing with Stasi files. The issues are many. Does every Iraqi have the right to access his or her file? How can others mentioned in the files be protected? Should the files of regime workers be publicly accessible?
"We are not 50 years removed from the events we wish to remember," Makiya says. "We are right at the edge. The survivors are still there. We're talking about material that's burning hot even as I speak, where families' lives will be touched by the terrible consequences of the material."
As with most Iraqis, his own life was touched by the regime, though Makiya calls himself lucky not to have suffered direct repression. Trained as an architect, Makiya left Iraq in 1967.
He spent the early 1980s working in the London firm of his father, a prominent architect who eventually designed structures for Hussein's regime, including a never-constructed building to house Baath Party headquarters. The son broke with the father to write about Iraqi politics, publishing his book "Republic of Fear," which gave many Americans their first descriptions of the brutality of the Iraqi regime, then considered a U.S. ally.
Father and son have since reconciled.
This war around, Hussein and his functionaries realized the power of their papers. Early this year, Hussein had a large number of sensitive documents moved or destroyed, many Iraqis say.
As the U.S. forces took Baghdad, civilians burst into the security agencies and rifled through files seeking clues about the fate of missing relatives in a country where an estimated 300,000 people have disappeared. State workers showed up to snatch their own files and, thus, leave no trace of their services to the regime. Iraqi political groups grabbed their own stashes of files.
Some citizens were even paying document dealers for their personal files.
Into this free-for-all landed Kanan Makiya in April. Makiya was fresh from helping to write a draft Iraqi constitution last winter through the State Department's Future of Iraq project. His draft emphasized "de-Baathification" of Iraq.
When he arrived in Baghdad, he made a list of all sites with monuments or documents he considered valuable and noted their GPS coordinates to notify the U.S. authorities to protect them. In June, he incorporated his foundation in Massachusetts.
Despite his readiness, only so much is available for him to collect. The U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group, a consortium of intelligence agencies that combed through documents mostly for suggestions of weapons of mass destruction, holds about 80 percent of the files, according to some Iraqi document sleuths.
Amid the chaos in Iraq, Makiya has struggled to preserve what he can. In September, as he was trying to prevent the bust of Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq from being smelted down, he found a treasure trove of documents. A U.S. military commander permitted him to hire 10 trucks and 30 workers to carry out files from underground corridors.
He dumped the 3-million-page cache in the basement of a house in a well-secured neighborhood of palaces and government buildings. He had bookshelves custom-made, and with an eight-person staff, began work on a new database to track the careers of Baath Party workers. He also purchased 10,000 sacks so he can be ready to pack up the papers should he need to evacuate the building. Eventually he hopes to move the collection to a site he has leased from the Coalition Provisional Authority, a symbolic center of the old regime, the military parade grounds and site of an ostentatious memorial that Makiya once wrote about in his book "The Monument."
Makiya's pro-war activism and connection with Pentagon hawks places the would-be custodian of national memory in a highly politicized position. Some question whether this exile steeped in exile politics is a suitable guardian of Iraqi history.
"It's really up to Iraqis who suffered under Saddam's rule to determine the shape and the meaning of such memorials, and not someone whose views were formed outside," says Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet, novelist and political writer who left Baghdad after the Gulf War and recently returned to make a movie. "Once again, Iraqis are not allowed to remember the way they want to, collectively."
"It'll be like Madame Tussaud's" wax museum, dryly stated Munther Jamil Hafidh, a viola player with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra who was recently in Washington. Now is not the time for such remembrance, he says, while the society has not created a political process or arrived at any consensus on the past.
"Sometimes, it takes one, two or even three generations before the public says, 'We are interested in these things,' " says Marianne Birthler, the commissioner of East Germany's Stasi files, an archive of 112 miles of paper. Still, the lessons of Eastern Europe show that closed files are more dangerous than open ones, she says. "That makes it even more important for a few people to say we must preserve these things."
In Baghdad these days, any kind of work is dangerous. But when the work is gathering elements of a contested history, it is particularly so.
Says Makiya, "I have to be part of the process I've spent all my life waiting to be a part of."