When Kanan Makiya entered the basement of the Ba'ath Party Regional Command Headquarters in April 2003, he found papers strewn all over the floor. American soldiers had been there first, looking for weapons. They had pulled down shelves and left the regime's official records scattered in random piles. Only weeks after the fall of Baghdad, Makiya, an Iraqi expatriate and Harvard researcher, had returned to his hometown to continue a process he began 30 years before—gathering the memory of his country.
The Center for Middle Eastern Studies affiliate had devoted the last decade to collecting documents to record the sufferings of his people under Saddam Hussein, a calling that led him to become an advocate for American invasion consulted by President Bush and his staff.
Makiya was one of a stream of expatriates returning to Iraq, but unlike many, he said he had little interest in what he called the "unseemly scramble" for political power. He wanted to reconstruct Iraqi identity after years of dictatorship, so he began planning a museum in Baghdad where people could search the records of Saddam's atrocities for the names of family members and friends. He even secured a site for the museum around the crossed swords of Saddam's Victory Arch.
Makiya thought he could provide closure to years of misery but instead found his plans put on hold as another violent stage in Iraq's history unfolded.
"Many of our dreams in the short run," he said, "no longer make sense."
HOME AT LAST
Shortly before Bush landed on an aircraft carrier with a sign reading "Mission Accomplished," Makiya and several expatriate friends from London got into a car at the Iraqi border and drove to Baghdad. It was the first time Makiya had visited his childhood home since he left the city in 1967 to attend MIT, and he was shocked.
The other cities he had passed through—Kuwait City, Amman—had become thriving modern metropolises adorned with Starbucks and new buildings.
In the 1960s, Baghdad had outshone them all. Now, "It was a broken city," and more than the American bombardment, the years of poverty and embargo under Saddam had drained Baghdad of its culture, Makiya said.
In the aftermath of the invasion, the old regime's records were up for grabs as many collections were snatched up by nascent political parties and kept privately, he said.
Collecting documents that chronicled the regime's crimes was part of a larger plan for Makiya.
"The single biggest question in Iraq post the fall of the regime was, ‘What does it mean to be an Iraqi?'" he said.
To answer that question, he and some colleagues began the Iraq Memory Foundation, a continuation of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project he had organized at Harvard beginning in 1999.
"Behind the Memory Foundation lay the idea that if there was one thing that Iraqis had in common, all Iraqis, it was the experience of pain," he said.
The foundation began videotaping oral histories of survivors of Saddam's brutal policies. On screen in one history, a mother holds up pictures of her pregnant daughter, her husband, her sons, all killed by the regime. She describes how an imprisoned friend's sons were dragged away from her and never seen again.
When Saddam was captured, Makiya's foundation helped provide documentation of his crimes for the trial. After 30 years of studying Saddam's abuses, Makiya was at last going to see him brought to justice.
"This would have been the first time that an Arab dictator had been held accountable, and it was extremely important to do that in a way in which justice was seen and was felt to be justice, not felt to be a kind of revenge," he said.
But the trial Makiya envisioned—an indictment of Saddam's regime before the world, which would take place in Baghdad, but include both Iraqi and international judges—never took place.
Saddam was sentenced to be hanged after he was convicted of only the first in a long list of crimes.
"The criminality of this regime was shrunk down to a mere atrocity involving 142 people," Makiya said.
He said the sectarian politics behind the trial were to blame because they made Saddam's execution look like a revenge killing.
"In some kind of miraculous way, the great victimizer of Iraq and Arab politics was turned into a victim himself," Makiya said.
"It was one of the worst moments of my life."
THE CAREFUL SCHOLAR
A professor of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis, Makiya lives in a pale green Victorian house near Porter Square. His living room is decorated with embroidered wall-hangings and a table decked with candles.
He keeps his proof of the evil of Saddam's regime above the television stashed in his closet.
It's a notebook covered in pink and white flowers. The title, traced neatly in magic marker, reads "Register of Eliminated Villages."
Inside, in childlike print, is a record of 399 villages systematically destroyed by Saddam's regime.
In 1991, a Kurdish resistance leader gave Makiya the notebook, part of the documentary proof of the genocidal campaign that eliminated between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurdish men, women, and children. During the campaign, carefully planned in advance by Saddam's regime, innocent civilians were herded together, executed, and dumped in mass graves.
Makiya, in his visit to northern Iraq, devoted himself to collecting documentation of the genocide, an effort that culminated in his work on an award-winning 1992 documentary, "Saddam's Killing Fields."
Afterwards, he obtained scanned copies of 3.2 million pages of official documents seized from Saddam's regime, and spent the next decade combing through them. The Iraq Research and Documentation Project was painstaking scholarly work, carried out in hopes of finding more proof of Saddam's crimes, Makiya said. He estimated that 90 percent of the documents were irrelevant, but he kept working through the pages for the few that mattered.
As the Bush administration geared up for war in 2002, Makiya, who had written a best-selling book on Saddam's regime, "Republic of Fear," was drawn into the public debate. He became a passionate supporter of the humanitarian justification for war and was consulted by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002 and, later, President Bush himself. But Makiya rejected the idea that his opinions had any impact on America's march to war. He called his meeting with Bush "nothing but a public relations exercise."
At Harvard, though, professors said his views mattered.
"His arguments were very persuasive," Eva Bellin '80, a former assistant professor of Middle Eastern politics at Harvard who now teaches at Hunter College, said.
"He provided the most compelling moral justification for our intervention in Iraq."
"He knew Iraq as well as anyone alive," said Michael G. Ignatieff, a friend of Makiya and the former director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights.
Ignatieff and Makiya both supported the war at the time of the invasion, but Ignatieff has since recanted his endorsement.
"I have great respect for Kanan's integrity," Ignatieff said.
Makiya, he said, "has stood for his convictions, and paid the price for his convictions, and has always, in every way, behaved in an honorable manner."
Makiya speaks sternly of the mistakes made by the American administration—and by policy advisors such as himself—in de-Baathfication and the disbanding of the Iraqi army. But he saves his harshest criticism for his old friends, the Iraqi expats he had trusted to help unite the country. Instead of bringing the nation together, Ahmed Chalabi and other friends fell into sectarian politics and power struggles.
"My judgment of my colleagues in the Iraqi opposition was off," he said.
"True, none of them were—what's the word—angels from heaven or anything like that, but I should have seen some of their later behaviors earlier."
But Makiya holds firm to his belief that sectarian divisions were not inevitable, that things could have gone otherwise.
"Nobody could know in advance how they were going to behave," he said. "Iraqi politicians could have chosen the way Nelson Mandela behaved in South Africa."
Today, Makiya's vision of Iraqi democracy has darkened. He compares Saddam-era Iraq to a concentration camp, and the question of invasion becomes the question of whether liberating the camps was necessary.
"You know," he said, "the inmates...half-starved, have done horrible things to each other, barely human, barely know who they are...it's extremely unpredictable how they're going to behave, and it's extremely unpredictable what leaders are going to lead them."
"Knowing it was unpredictable," he asked, "hoping for the best, would you still knock those walls down?"
Makiya is not sure if he will ever return to live in his home country. He cannot begin building his museum in Baghdad until the sectarian violence comes to an end.
"It's a war over identity, a war over memory," he said. "Our project only makes sense when you can look backward and assimilate what will happen."
Now, he and his colleagues are discussing whether they will have to expand the scope of the museum, the register of its horrors, to include these years of civil war. He said he's not sure if they will, not sure if it's a good idea.
"We're talking about it," he said.
—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at email@example.com.