The Baʿth Party Records: Accessing and Utilizing the Former Iraqi Government’s Papers
Dr. Katelyn Tietzen takes you into the Ba'th Party Records, held at the Hoover Institute, and reveals how scholars can access the impressive and important collection.
Accessing Middle Eastern archives can be tricky these days, especially considering recent geopolitical tensions and conflict. However, for contemporary Iraqi scholars, the United States is home to millions of Baʿth Party documents. Housed at the Hoover Institution, this dataset is relatively new, only being accessible to scholars for little over ten years. Joseph Sassoon, Aaron Faust, Dina Rizk Khoury, Samuel Helfont, Lisa Blaydes, and Arbella Bet-Shlimon have led the vanguard of scholars and researchers who have used these documents. Their works, and the works that are following their leads, have contributed significantly to our understanding of Baʿthist Iraq.
The Baʿth Party records were originally collected and digitized by the Iraqi Memory Foundation (IMF). Unable to maintain proper archival facilities, the IMF turned the documents over to Hoover Institution on Stanford University’s campus. The records are subsequently divided into the following datasets: the North Iraq Dataset (NIDS), Kuwaiti Dataset (KDS), School Registers’ Dataset, the Baʿth Regional Command Collection (BRCC), Baʿth Party Membership Files, Jewish Presence in Iraq Dataset, selected documents from the Ministry of Information, artifacts, videos, and subsequent collections from 2004 and 2005. Library descriptions of all the datasets can be found here.
Almost all of the records are digitized and only available at computers at the Hoover Institution. By and large, documents are all written in Arabic as well. While most documents are typed, there are handfuls of handwritten documents—several are from Saddam Hussein himself, given his penchant for micro-managing just about everything until after the First Gulf War. Sometimes the script is very difficult to read and even native Arabic speakers may struggle to decipher the handwriting.
The nature in which the Baʿth Party collection was acquired presents some major challenges in itself. Several were captured by members and affiliates of the US military and the US government without permission of the Baʿthist regime, the coalition-formed Iraqi government, or the individuals whose information is part of the metadata. In fact, Kanan Makiya, a prominent Iraqi exile, had originally stored them in his basement in his parents’ home before entering into an agreement with the Hoover Institution in 2008. Therefore, photographs of the documents are forbidden in order to protect personally identifiable information. Paper or printed copies of the digitized documents are also forbidden. Researchers are required to sign an access criteria and user agreement before being granted access to the digital copies of the documents.
The Baʿth Party kept extensive details on both its members and Iraqi citizens. For example, there are around 3.8 million documents within the Baʿth Party membership files alone. As a result, the archivists at Hoover have sometimes encountered individuals looking for information on specific Baʿthist members. Some hope to support their legal cases in Iraq, while others hope to exact revenge for crimes previously committed against their families during the Baʿthist regime. The Iraqi government has also asked that these documents be returned to Iraq, and some archivists and librarians have called the American possession of these documents illegal and a violation of various Hague and Geneva conventions.[i] Other scholars have also highlighted the issue that “Iraqi researchers are effectively barred from accessing a critical source about their own history” because of the location of the records and the difficulties in obtaining visas to the United States.
The NIDS dataset, of which there are around 2.4 million documents available to researchers, was gathered by Kurdish forces who captured Baʿth Party documents in the course of their rebellion in 1991 against Saddam Hussein’s rule. The documents provide insight into the bureaucracy of the Baʿthist state, containing reports on individuals and tribes, police matters, weapons caches, foreigners, and more. These documents were then turned over to the U.S. and Human Rights Watch after the US enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq; the latter used the documents to provide damning details of Saddam’s genocidal campaign against Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War. The documents were moved to the University of Colorado-Boulder in 1998 and then were made available to researchers at Hoover in 2010.
All the copies of the NIDS are digitized, but researchers should be warned of a few issues. Some of the scans have left pages illegible. Other pages are missing, despite being listed as within the collection. In some cases, only the sheet file remains—the page which notes the basic information of what the document details and how it was collected—and the entire document itself is removed. Whenever something was deemed classified by the Americans, the entire document was removed from the file, leaving just an identification sheet behind. This process was carried out by the US Department of Defense, not by the staff or affiliates of the Hoover Institution.[ii]
The KDS documents were seized in the fallout of the Iraqi expulsion from Kuwait by US-led forces in February 1991. Numerous documents were left by Iraqi soldiers, including diaries and training manuals, among many others. Some scholars have already begun to contextualize those findings.[iii] Other documents reflect the nature of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait (August 1990-February 1991) and reference Baʿthist bureaucracy and treatment of Kuwaitis. The collection consists of around 725,000 digitized pages and was made available to researchers at Hoover in 2015.
As one of the largest datasets, the BRCC consists of around 2.8 million documents. It contains pages on the Baʿthist administration, personnel, command structure, party institutions, state organization, ideology, and soft power. Since the Baʿth Party exerted a tremendous amount of effort to permeate throughout Iraq, scholars can find great insight into the various aspects of Iraqi society. Some of these examples include religion, the military, education, labor, and other civil societies. The Baʿth security apparatus was expansive and, in its attempts to be all-knowing, it generated thousands upon thousands of documents on potential, however credible, threats to the regime. This included tracking everything from petty criminals, foreigners, Iraqis who were perceived to be disloyal, and anyone who had fallen out of favor of Saddam and the regime. The Baʿth also attempted to control Iraqis living abroad, including dissenters and exiles, and scholars can find references to these efforts. Documents related to the Iraqi military and foreign policy matters are abundant as well.
While the Baʿthist regime seized control over Iraq in 1968, the documents generally date between the 1980 and 1990s. To be sure, there are documents from the 1970s within the BRCC, but they are much more scarce and scattered. The Baʿth Party was ever the more bureaucratic, and researchers will find extensive, and arguably compulsive, documents on the most minute of matters. These documents will often be repetitive, with only signatures and departments changing. Nevertheless, scholars can get a good sense of how information was received and transmitted and how, and if, any policy changes were altered as a consequence of the bureaucracy.
Visiting Hoover: Challenges and Tips
It is highly encouraged that researchers register online before arrival to Hoover. This not only saves time, but also alerts the staff and reading room attendants of their arrival. It is also advisable to contact Haedar Raad Hadi (email@example.com) directly before traveling to California. Even before visiting the Baʿth archives, researchers should at least consult Sassoon and Faust as both scholars break down the Baʿth Party hierarchy and system; this will not only save time but also prevent frustrating headaches when trying to navigate the complex Baʿthist system.
Researchers should take note that a week’s visit may not be long enough to complete all the desired research. Besides the ban on photographing documents, it takes a good day or two at least to familiarize oneself with the layout of the data collection. Within the BRCC, for example, one can browse by topics or serial number. Within the topics, the metadata has been sorted into 23 markers, including correspondence, security, party institutions, geographical centers, news, dates, and many others. Selecting a topic, researchers will find subsequent entries that are sorted in alphabetical order. This list may include countries, people, places, and events, depending on the topic selected. For instance, one may select “Topics,” then “Security” (which itself has well over 5000 entries), then click the letter “F” to find “French Aircraft to Iraq.” The number of boxfiles—similar to a traditional archive box one may find at the National Archives— related to that entry is listed on the side of the entry.
Several words of caution, however. Just because 12 boxfiles exist, let’s say, does not mean that those 12 boxfiles are solely devoted to that entry. The number only reflects the number of boxfiles where one can find a reference to that desired entry. Documents pertaining to “French Aircraft to Iraq” may be found before military desertion documents and after Baʿth Party literature documents. The metadata has largely been left in the order of which the stacks of paper and binders were found in Iraq. It was only after the documents were combed through and digitized that the markers for the entries were created. Without organizing the documents, the original cataloguers looked for keywords, phrases, and people in each boxfile. Researchers should also be aware that just because “French Aircraft to Iraq” is marked as in that boxfile does not mean that the find will be always be fruitful. In many cases, pages are missing or out of order.
On top of that, the boxfiles themselves can be rather large. According to Hoover, the average size is around 400 pages. And yet, sometimes they can reach between 800-900 pages. The records are in JPEG format and therefore researchers cannot keyword search for terms within documents. Unfortunately, this means a lot of time is spent reading and scrolling through entire batches of documents to find the desired document. In some cases, there may only be one document in the entire boxfile that references that entry. A suggestion for the researcher would be to carefully read the summary of the boxfile, which is listed once the boxfile is selected. Sometimes, with a little bit of luck, the boxfile summary lists the order in which the document is located—this all depends, however, on who catalogued that particular boxfile. If “French Aircraft to Iraq” is listed towards the end of the summary, one may only need to start at page 700, rather than page 1. Fortuna, alas, does not appear in all boxfile summaries.
In 2019, the Hoover reading room was closed for renovations and was not due to open until Spring 2020. Nonetheless, the Hoover Institution recently opened an annex in Washington D.C. where scholars can access the Baʿth Party records. Research can only be conducted via appointment, so it is best to contact them beforehand at either 202-760-3200 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Researchers should also consult the Hoover Institution’s updates as due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the reading rooms in Palo Alto and Washington, D.C. are currently restricted to Stanford affiliates only. There are tentative plans to open access to non-Stanford researchers in September, but those plans are contingent on forthcoming Stanford University policies and decisions. For further clarification, Erin Marie Nichols (email@example.com) and Sarah Patton (firstname.lastname@example.org), of Hoover D.C. and Stanford respectively, should be contacted.
Previously, researchers visiting the Hoover D.C. Annex were not allowed to use notes, dictionaries, and laptops in the research room, unlike the reading room in Palo Alto. However, this policy has been amended recently and materials—not including phones—are now permitted.
The Baʿth records, while daunting to navigate and research, are well worth the effort. As evidenced by the first round of publications to emerge from the archive, there are several avenues for future researchers to explore and many others have yet to be addressed. Above all, these records are providing incredible insight into the Baʿthist regime and the lives of Iraqis who endured and survived it.
[i] Also see Michelle Caswell, “’Thank You Very Much, Now Give Them Back’: Cultural Property and the Fight over the Iraqi Baath Party Records,” The American Archivist, 74:1 (Summer 2011): 211-240.
[ii] For more of a detailed discussion on the history and issues of NIDS, see Joseph Sassoon and Michael Brill, “The North Iraq Dataset (NIDS) files: Northern Iraq under Baʿthist rule, 1968–91”, Journal of Contemporary Iraq & the Arab World, 14:1-2 (2020), forthcoming.
[iii] Joseph Sassoon and Alissa Walter, “The Iraqi Occupation of Kuwait: New Historical Perspectives,” Middle East Journal, 71:4 (Autumn 2017): 607-628.
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