Out of sight: Iraq's TV archive lost to the war
Twenty years after the US-led invasion of Iraq to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s archival sector may not be an obvious casualty of the war, but the evidence would suggest otherwise.
Is it that the loss of human life renders the loss of archival collections nugatory? Might this account for years of prolonged disinterest in the fate of Iraq’s lost TV archive? Or can we explain it away by presuming “nobody cares” or that “stuff happens”, in the words of former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld.
At a time when experts worldwide are gathering to debate the merits and pitfalls of Iraq’s invasion, my inner archivist is screaming “where is our TV archive […] and why is nobody talking about it?”
"Prior to these events, the HQ had housed the largest audiovisual collection in the Middle East, comprising one hundred thousand items and documenting half a decade of contemporary Iraqi history"
Occupation-fuelled looting sprees
Imagine the scenes. It is April 2003, Saddam is nowhere to be seen, and frenzied civilians are shuffling and pacing in the streets. The skies are red and below them foreign troops spectate from their armoured vehicles.
Men, identifiable only by their legs, carry away large items; movable furniture, TV monitors, and every imaginable electronic good. The groans of civilians pained by these sights are also heard. All the while, children smile at Western press corps, raising an emphatic thumbs-up saluting “Operation Iraqi Looting” as The New York Times described it.
As for Iraq’s TV headquarters in Salhiya where the looting had spread, shelves and storage rooms lay bare. Technicians inspect entangled film reels left behind and on the sidelines, unstealthy looters pause to recuperate from the punishing heat. All that survives to re-tell the tale is a 30-second clip from an Abu Dhabi TV exclusive viewable on YouTube.
Pillagers strip TV HQ bare
The pillaging of the TV building lasted for five days, between the 20 and 25 of April, during which organised mobs targeted studios 200, 400, and 600, using sledge hammers and drills to bypass security vaults, according to Iraqi journalist Imad Al-Gharabawi. Two weeks later on 10 May 2003, a fire ravaged the building that seated the state-run TV network. Anything which had survived the “great purge” was ravaged by the fire.
Prior to these events, the HQ had housed the largest audiovisual collection in the Middle East, comprising one hundred thousand items and documenting half a decade of contemporary Iraqi history. It featured bilateral visits, TV dramas, theatre productions, news bulletins, the national music archive and the coveted military archive which included state media coverage of the Iraq-Iran war (1980 - 1988).
The world at the time was gripped by the theft of the official “Baath Archive”, local museums, and libraries. Years later, attention shifted towards the eventual repatriation of official Iraqi government documents which were lifted out by occupying forces.
Little was said about the spiriting of audiovisual collections, beyond the mischaracterisation of mob looting by US officials as an act of “reclamation” or “getting even” with the regime.
'It belongs to the people'
The alarm was eventually sounded by the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) — a US appointed Government-in-waiting — which launched in the same year a campaign to retrieve stolen items. Their campaign, “It Belongs to the People”, urged all segments of Iraqi society to return stolen goods.
Some mysteriously reappeared in public spaces and others were turned in. These were no acts of heroism, especially given that many of the returned items were in poor shape, and the main bulk of the TV collection remained missing.
There are many popular theories based on surviving testimonies as to what really happened. The most widely cited is that the TV archive was ‘sold for profit’. Its composite parts were allegedly sold to the highest bidding Arab satellite stations. Thieves treated items like hostages, willing to release them only in exchange for hefty ransoms.
Another unevidenced claim is that items were sold back to the then-US-taxpayer-funded Iraqi Television Network (ITN), now presided over by Iraq’s Ministry of Culture. Another claim is that the TV purge was orchestrated by armed factions; a generic description which reveals very little.
Twenty years on, no formal investigation has been launched to unmask the true identity of the culprits.
"If the government is serious about retrieving Iraq’s lost TV archive, it could create an inventory by retracing the archive’s digital footprints"
Digital scraps shore up online
I discovered during a deep dive of YouTube and, to a lesser extent, TikTok, a parallel yet sparsely scattered archive. A long trail of material belonging to Iraqi state TV had been uploaded by anonymous YouTube Channels. Some were distinctly neo-Baathist, while others attempted to reclaim the Baath party’s socialist roots.
In its ‘about me’ section, one channel states with confidence that materials uploaded represent a “personal effort”, adding that “all the tapes on which the TV archive was recorded [SIC] were lost, destroyed and burned” [in 2003].
Some pages are solely dedicated to the naming and shaming of ''traitors'' using former state TV footage, while others are politically agnostic, pages interested in only reviving the memory of popular educational and cultural TV programmes.
Materials include rare poetry recitals, music concerts, unaired interviews with towering cultural figures, vox pops, and not least, countless televised public visits by Saddam Hussein. The quality is not crisp and the audio of some videos is missing entirely, and the vast majority are vandalised with excessive watermarking — perhaps intended to halt circulation or re-brand the materials.
Despite these attempts to establish a cultural glass ceiling, one cannot ignore the wealth of materials shoring up online, and the glimpse of hope they represent.
For the Iraqi government, these amateur pages — the modern-day and digital equivalent of Ali Baba and his 40 thieves — present a useful starting point for a public inquiry. If the government is serious about retrieving Iraq’s lost TV archive, it could create an inventory by retracing the archive’s digital footprints.
One actionable recommendation is an amnesty programme. Under government protection, civilians would be invited to return items in their possession while remaining anonymous to avoid public scrutiny and possible reprisals.
In doing so, the government would allow audiovisual items to proliferate back into the right sphere for the greater cultural benefit of this war-weary nation.
Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq's ancient history and contemporary political scene.
Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi