Middle East

The dangers in Saddam's 'black files'
By Ian Urbina

When it comes to file-keeping, the Baathists of Iraq were often referred to as the "Prussians of the Middle East". Saddam Hussein's officials kept impeccable and detailed records on virtually all realms of government and society. But as looting grips Baghdad and throngs of civilians rush government buildings to exact retribution in whatever small way they can, the fate of these records is an open question. In post-war Iraq, these documents will prove to be of inestimable value for determining guilt and meting out justice. But it will all depend on whether the prized materials have already been destroyed or disappeared.

Discreet discussion about the status of Iraqi files began long before the start of the war. The United Nations was still in the throes of heated debate back in August of last year when some in the US intelligence community anonymously leaked information about Saddam's so-called "black files". Allegedly, these files contain indications of covert payments to various African countries to procure pro-Iraq votes at the UN. The same sources reported that Morocco in particular was getting nervous.

Others have said that it is US indiscretions that are at root in Washington's concern over the files. These sources point to the incident late last year when the US representative to the UN had several thousand pages removed from Iraq's weapons disclosure report before it was released for general review. These pages were reportedly removed because they contained unflattering disclosures about US corporations and US government agencies that had cooperated with Baghdad over the years.

Still, no one can be sure about the whereabouts or status of these nor other sensitive files. Some present and former US intelligence officials believe that Saddam began destroying and removing records long before the Hans Blix's inspectors ever arrived in the country. When recently asked about the matter, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would only comment on the hope that the most important files might still be found. "You never know if you will find the files. We have information that they have been dispersing their documentation, putting them in private homes, burying things, and trying to avoid being caught in that."

At least since late March, before the bombing began, US Special Forces have been in Baghdad discretely hunting for key files. US Intelligence sources in Washington also have reported, off the record, that they have received assistance from members within the Iraqi intelligence community.

The hope with these files is that they will not simply provide solid evidence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs but also a full picture of his alleged ties to international terrorist groups. If a truth and reconciliation legal apparatus is to be constituted in the post-war context, these files will also prove necessary for the sake of detailing the full scope of Saddam's repressive state machine.

Additionally, US officials are looking for proof that Russian and French firms may have skirted the UN weapons embargo of Iraq over the years, possibly by shipping materiel to third party countries, ultimately destined for Saddam.

Over the past weeks, various Mukhabarat (Iraqi secret police) offices have been hit by US artillery fire. However, US officials have repeatedly reassured that this does not mean that the archives in these locations are destroyed. But the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and US Special Forces are probably not the only ones on the ground hunting for the archives. Other countries may have their own people on the job as well. Last week, a Russian diplomatic convoy came under US fire as it evacuated Baghdad. One passenger sustained serious wounds.

Within Russia there is speculation that the passengers in the convoy were possibly carrying sensitive records which Moscow wants to keep out of American hands. The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta broke the story, reporting that there was a high-stakes race going on between the CIA and the SVR (Russian foreign intelligence). "One was taking out classified Iraqi archives, and the other was trying to hamper it by force." The newspaper claimed that Russian intelligence agents had been sent to Iraq several weeks ago to begin collecting the materials which could be used in protecting Russian interests in post-war Iraq. Surely, Moscow is also worried about any records that implicate them in Saddam's wrongdoings.

Both the US and the Russians maintain differing explanations of the events. Alexander Vershbow, US ambassador to Russia, stated that the convoy decided to change its course at the last minute, which is why it ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But one Russian embassy employee, Roman Yudanov, who was in the convoy, told the press that they deviated barely at all and only due to obstacles in their designated path. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov corroborated this view, "If there was any change at all in the route, it was unsubstantial."

The fight for Baghdad seems to be over. But clearly the struggle to plumb the city’s wealth of information is still an open contest. In the long run, this race may be one of the most consequential if the US is going to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction. This race may also be the deciding factor in ultimately bringing Saddam and/or henchmen to their day in court.

Ian Urbina is an editor at the Middle East Report and is based at the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), a foreign policy think tank.

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Apr 12, 2003


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