Iraqi Secret Police Files Seized by the Kurds during the 1991 Gulf War
In March 1991, after the defeat of the Iraqi armed forces in the Gulf War, Kurdish rebels rose in popular revolt against the Iraqi regime, storming and burning secret police stations, prisons, and torture centers. In the uprising, the Iraqi Kurds seized an estimated 18 tons of secret police files from several cities and towns in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan before Saddam Hussein’s armed forces returned to crush the revolt after having quelled mass uprisings in the south among the Shiites. The captured documents took on international importance and made news headlines as they contained direct evidence of crimes against humanity and the Anfal genocide that had been perpetuated against the Kurds by the Iraqi regime during the mid and late 1980s.
Following the capture of the documents in 1991, the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya, Peter Galbraith of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Human Rights Watch/Middle East approached the Kurdish factions holding the documents about their possible transfer to the United States for analysis and safe storage. In May 1992, after several visits to northern Iraq, Peter Galbraith and HRW/ME representatives reached an agreement with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to send the greater share of the captured documents to the United States. With funding from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Pentagon airlifted the documents to the U.S. where they were put in the temporary custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In August 1993, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) agreed to the same terms and its share of the captured documents were then airlifted to the U.S. and stored with the PUK files. Finally, the United Party of Kurdistan, which later disbanded, sent a small cache of six boxes to join the approximately 18 metric tons of files at the National Archives.
With the captured secret police files on American soil, an unusual collaboration ensued between HRW/ME and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). While HRW/ME analyzed the documents to begin gathering evidence for a possible case of genocide against the Iraqi regime, the DIA’s Documentation Exploitation Division digitized the 5.5 million-document collection onto 76 CD ROMs. In 1997, five years after HRW/ME had completed the analysis of the documents, the Human Rights Initiative at the University of Colorado at Boulder under the direction of Bruce P. Montgomery negotiated the acquisition of the original secret police files and the digital database with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Kurdish political factions that had seized the files in the March 1991 uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan. The release and transfer agreement outlined in a letter by Senators Jessie Helms and Josesph Biden of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stipulated that ownership resided with the PUK and KDP and that any request by them for the return of the documents must be honored.
While in the care of the Archives of the University of Colorado at Boulder, the captured secret police files were made widely accessible to journalists, researchers, human rights lawyers, and international organizations from around the world seeking evidence of crimes against humanity perpetuated by Saddam Hussein and his senior leadership. In 2005, during the American occupation of Iraq, the U.S. Justice Department’s Regime Crimes Liaison Office (now disbanded) requested access to the files for use in the Iraqi trials of Saddam Hussein and leading officials of his regime. As the documents were in Arabic, Montgomery recommended a Kurdish contact to provide translation services to the Regime Crimes Liaison Office. Subsequent to the work of locating evidence for the Iraqi trials, the Archives and the Regime Crimes Liaison Office reached an agreement providing for the transfer of the secret police files to the Justice Department on the condition that they would be repatriated to Iraq. In 2007, the U.S. government transported the records to the custody of the Kurds in northern Iraq, instead of to the central government.
There are those who claim that the documents should have been returned to the successor agencies of Saddam’s secret police, or to the Iraqi National Library and Archives. We disagree. It is our view that because the secret police files document the bureaucratic repression of the Kurds, including evidence of the Anfal campaign in the mid to late 1980s, the documents belong to the Kurds. The Kurds have a fundamental right to know what was done to them, how it was perpetuated, and by whom. As the victims of Saddam Hussein’s outrages, they have the right to this recorded history — their history — not the successor agencies to Hussein’s secret police or the Iraqi National Library and Archives, where they may subject to lasting access restrictions or destruction.
The Archives at the University of Colorado at Boulder retains the digital database to the 5.5 million document collection.
U.S. to Help Retrieve Data on Iraqi Torture of Kurds (NYT, Patrick Tyler; May 17, 1992)