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Iraq-US begin talks to reclaim Jewish archive

world Updated: May 13, 2010 23:08 IST

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Iraq is negotiating with US authorities for the return of millions of documents, including a stash of rare Hebrew-language books and parchments found in a flooded basement by American troops after the 2003 invasion, Iraqi officials said Thursday.

A high-level Iraqi delegation visited the US last week to discuss bringing the documents back to Baghdad. The documents include an extensive collection referred to as the Iraqi Jewish Archive, as well as records and files belonging to Saddam Hussein's disbanded Baath Party and security services.

But the discussions yielded no guarantees from the US on when the materials will be returned, and more meetings will be held in Iraq soon, said the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, Saad Eskander.

"These documents are part of Iraq's heritage, and we've demanded that the Americans should return them," he told reporters at the Iraqi Culture Ministry. "They are studying our demand seriously because they know that the Iraqi side is serious and will never abandon its cultural heritage."

The history of the materials dates back to 2003 when US troops looking for weapons of mass destruction found a collection of Hebrew-language documents floating in murky water from a busted sewage pipe in the basement of an intelligence services building in Baghdad.

The materials, later dubbed the Iraqi Jewish Archive, were taken to the US for treatment and safekeeping.

The collection contains photos, parchments, cases to hold Torah scrolls and a Jewish religious book published in 1568. There are also 50 copies of a children's primer in Hebrew and Arabic, books in Arabic and English, and tomes printed in Baghdad, Warsaw and Venice. After the materials were discovered, they were laid out to dry in the sun, and eventually shipped to the US

After being freeze-dried at a facility in Texas, the collection was taken to the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland. There the items were photographed, lightly cleaned, wrapped and boxed. NARA and the Center for Jewish History, a New York-based nonprofit group, are using the photos to catalog the collection. But they say that to handle and digitize it, more preservation work would be needed.

Both Eskander and deputy culture minister Tahir Nassir al-Humoud said the way US forces seized and transferred the materials was "illegal" because there was no Iraqi government at the time. But al-Humoud, who led the Iraqi delegation, said the Americans' reply was "promising and encouraging."

He said it will take some time to secure the collection's return, "but we've started the first step on the road and we are optimistic."

Iraq used to be home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Middle East, dating back to the 6th century B.C. Abraham of the Old Testament is believed to have come from the city of Ur, in what is modern-day Iraq, and despite periods of persecution, the community endured and thrived over centuries.

But the Jewish community's position deteriorated when Iraq sided with Nazi Germany in World War II, and came to a head when Israel was created.

By the early 1950s, Iraqi Jews were fleeing the country in droves. The few thousand who remained were harassed and their assets seized. Some were hanged after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party took power in 1969. The secret police are believed to have confiscated countless books and other archival material from the Jewish community.