The Search For A Talmud In Baghdad

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The New York Times reported yesterday that what began on Tuesday "as a hunt for an ancient Jewish text at secret police headquarters [in Baghdad,] wound up unearthing a trove of Iraqi intelligence documents and maps relating to Israel as well as offers of sales of uranium and other nuclear material to Iraq." Among the finds by the U.S. MET Alpha soldiers - the "mobile exploitation team" that has been searching for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in Iraq for the past three months - were maps featuring terrorist strikes against Israel dating to 1991, another map of Israel highlighting what the Iraqis thought were the hit-points of their Scuds in 1991, a perfect mock-up of the Knesset, detailed mock-ups of downtown Jerusalem and official Israeli buildings, and a satellite picture of Dimona, Israel's nuclear complex.

Excerpts from the Times article:
"The discoveries… were the serendipitous byproduct of one of the strangest missions ever conducted by MET Alpha. The search began this morning when 16 soldiers from MET Alpha teamed up with members of the Iraqi National Congress [opposition group] to search for what an intelligence source had described as one of the most ancient copies of the Talmud in existence, dating from the seventh century. The Talmud is a book of oral law, with rabbinical commentaries and interpretations.

"A former senior official of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's secret police, had told the opposition group a few days earlier that he had hidden the ancient Jewish book in the basement of his headquarters. The building had been badly damaged by coalition bombing, said the man, who is now working for the Iraqi National Congress, but he was still willing to take a group there to recover it. MET Alpha hesitated. Its mission was hunting for proof of unconventional weapons in Iraq, not saving cultural and religious treasures. But Col. Richard R. McPhee, its commander, decided that the historic Talmud was too valuable to leave behind.

"Early this morning, a seven-vehicle convoy… arrived at Mukhabarat headquarters only to find the section of the building in which the precious document was said to be stored under four feet of murky, fetid water. Dead animals floated on the surface. The stairwell down to the muck was littered with shards of glass, pieces of smashed walls and other bombing debris.

"Temporarily daunted by the overpowering stench, MET Alpha's leader, Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, and two other MET Alpha soldiers eventually collected themselves and plunged into the mire in search of the holy text as the team chaplain shook his head in disbelief.

"What they found instead of the precious book was what the former Iraqi intelligence official said was the operations center of the Mukhabarat's Israel-Palestine department. Two Iraqi National Congress members joined the soldiers in the water as they inched their way by flashlight through the 50-foot hallway to the rooms where they happened upon the intelligence documents.

"Slogging down the dank hallway, the soldiers reached a room where they found hundreds of books floating in the foul water. There they rescued three bundles of older Jewish books, including a Babylonian Talmud from Vilna, accounting books of the Jewish community of Baghdad between 1949 and 1953, and dozens of more modern scholarly books mostly in Arabic and Hebrew [including] David Ben-Gurion's "Memoirs"… But no seventh-century Talmud.

"…Mr. Gonzales said his team believed that it might still be at the bottom of the Mukhabarat's flooded basement. That view was reinforced by the recovery of a wooden box with Hebrew writing, which the former Iraqi intelligence officer said might have contained the priceless artifact. "