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Lost and Found in Saddam’s Basement

Barbara Bensoussan

Slogging through the water in the bombed-out basement of Saddam Hussein’s dreaded Mukhabarat intelligence agency, investigators on the lookout for those elusive WMDs found another an unexpected cache. When they saw the casing of an ancient Torah scroll floating by, they knew Saddam has secreted a treasure trove of Jewish history in the depths of his cellar.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Baghdad, 1984: Two trucks arrive at theMeirTweig synagogue, the only shul in use by the handful of Jews still remaining in Baghdad. The trucks have been dispatched bySaddamHussein, the country’s ruthless dictator, charged with the mission of delivering yet another slap to the face of the Jewish community.

Saddam’s men go upstairs to the women’s section, where a large stash of Jewish seforim, documents, and artifacts have been consolidated and safeguarded — cherished relics of a Jewish community that has largely fled. The men confiscate everything they can find, load the trucks, and drive off, leaving the synagogue’s occupants terrified and bereft.

Baghdad, 2003: A coalition led by US and British forces invades Iraq, largely on the pretext thatSaddamHussein has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Eventually, Saddam is lifted out of an underground bunker and the Iraqi army is defeated, but those famous WMDs are never found.

 

It’s a warm Monday in May, with the US-led coalition forces and the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in control of Baghdad. An Iraqi informant, probably seeking to curry favor with Iraq’s new leadership, approaches INC leaderAhmedChalabiand tells him that he used to head the Jewish section of Saddam’s intelligence service. He claims there is an entire trove of Jewish artifacts, including a seventh-century Talmud written on parchment, still lying there in the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s infamous intelligence agency.

Chalabi immediately calls two longtime friends currently in Baghdad: HaroldRhode(who worked with the INC from 1991 to 2003), and journalist JudithMillerof the New York Times.Miller has been embedded with the 16-member Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, a group searching for those elusive nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Rhode, Miller, Team Alpha, and a few Iraqis from the INC jump into their Jeeps and head for the Mukhabarat. They’re not really sure what, if anything, they might expect to find there.

United States, 2014: “So off we went, and our informant points to two windows down below in the basement,” recountsDr.Rhode, now retired and safely back at his home in Potomac, Maryland. “The next time we looked around, he had disappeared into thin air.

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