NY Times These are not the weapons of mass destruction that the American Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha was seeking in Iraq during the spring of 2003. But the books and manuscripts that the team found in a flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters — now on display for the first time at the National Archives here — look like victims of some form of ordnance.
They are ragged, warped, torn, stained. And that is after extensive restoration. This new exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” presents just 24 artifacts (and some reproductions) selected from 2,700 volumes and tens of thousands of documents the American military found submerged in four feet of fetid water in the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s intelligence building. Those items, which had been collected by the Iraqi office investigating Israel and the Jews, span five centuries of Jewish life in Iraq. It took weeks for the American team to gather them, set them out to dry and ship them — in disarray and black with mold — to the National Archives. Much still awaits being restored and digitized at the archives’ laboratories in College Park, Md.
Their condition, though, may be the least complicated thing about them. The flooding was caused by an unexploded coalition bomb — an accident of war. The mold was partly the result of the military rescuers’ inability to freeze the waterlogged material immediately, which would have halted decay. The costs of the restoration, overseen by the archives’ director of preservation, Doris Hamburg, have been mainly paid with $3 million from the State Department, which will return the materials to Iraq next year — as was agreed.
But that plan has touched a quivering nerve. Protests have been registered by Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democrat, and other members of Congress; Iraqi Jews, now in other countries, have also been pressing for alternatives to the collection’s return. Passions are high, too, because the collection’s state of ruin is an uncanny representation of what happened to the Iraqi Jewish population itself. It had been the oldest Jewish diaspora in the world, arriving before the sixth century B.C. In 1940, Jews accounted for a quarter of Baghdad’s population; there were more than 130,000 Jews in Iraq. Now there is scarcely a handful.