WASHINGTON — Some lawmakers are trying to prevent the return to Baghdad of a cache of Iraqi Jewish community records, which were seized by the U.S. military during the Iraq war and occupation.
The Senate on Thursday unanimously backed a bipartisan resolution introduced by Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., that urged the State Department to reconsider returning the artifacts to Iraq.
Senate leaders are now seeking a leader to push forward similar legislation in the House, according to a staff member.
The 2,700 books and 10,000 documents had been confiscated by successive Iraqi governments from Jewish families who have left the country since the 1930s. In May 2003, U.S. troops looking for weapons of mass destruction chanced upon the cache in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.
The artifacts are to be sent back to Iraq in June, under the terms of a 2003 agreement signed by the U.S. Department of State.
“I think that nobody should question the ownership of these artifacts,” Iraqi ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily said in an interview.
“They belong to the Iraqi people. It’s part of our heritage,” he said, adding that he was happy to discuss “how we can share the artifacts” with Iraqi Jews now living abroad.
The Senate resolution argued that the agreement “was signed before knowing the complete history” of the archive, which belongs to a community “represented by the diaspora outside Iraq.”
In November, more than 40 American Jewish groups signed a statement calling for the documents to be preserved in the “synagogues of Iraqi Jews” in the United States.
The National Archives and Records Administration has spent $3 million restoring the collection, which includes a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna and a 19th-century Haggadah from Baghdad.
In December, 49 Torah Scroll fragments that were beyond repair were buried in New Montefiore Cemetery in New York. The religious ceremony, organized by the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, was attended by Faily and other Iraqi delegates.