U.S. and allied forces should prevent Iraqi government offices from being ransacked because government documents will undoubtedly be key evidence in future war crimes trials, Human Rights Watch urged in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld today.

Families who have been expelled from their homes, particularly from the areas around Kirkuk in northern Iraq, will also need to rely on government records to establish their property claims, ethnic identities and place of origin.

Failing to protect Iraqi security archives could contribute to retaliatory violence and vengeance killings, since the archives could identify tens of thousands of security agents and collaborators by name, Human Rights Watch said.

Looting has been reported in many Iraqi cities as the government collapses, and U.S. and coalition forces have done little to stop it. In Basra, British officials have publicly stated that they allowed the looting of Ba'ath party buildings, which house important archives, as a means of showing the population that the party had lost control of the city.

"These government documents are critical evidence of twenty-five years of atrocities," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Countless families in Iraq will need access to these archives to establish what happened to their missing relatives."

Human Rights Watch estimates that some 250,000 to 290,000 Iraqis have "disappeared" during the rule of the Ba'ath Party-taken away from their homes by the Iraqi security forces, and never heard from again. The archives of the Iraqi security services could finally allow the families of those "disappeared" to find out what has happened to their long-lost relatives.

Following the 1991 uprisings, Kurdish officials secured an estimated 18 tons of Iraqi state documents, which were transferred to the United States and analyzed by Human Rights Watch. These captured documents clearly established Iraqi

government responsibility for the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, and helped Human Rights Watch identify the responsible Iraqi officials. The documents also provided important evidence of other repressive actions by the Iraqi government, including its campaign against the southern Marsh Arab population.

Future insecurity could be prevented if documents are preserved. For many displaced Iraqis, official government records are all they have to establish their identities, place of birth, ethnicity, or ownership of property. Human Rights Watch has reported on the confiscation of nationality correction forms, expulsion orders, and ration cards before Iraqis were forcibly displaced from their homes , making the copies available in official government repositories even more important. Current occupants of property abandoned by displaced people have an interest in seeing these documents destroyed. More generally, if these records are not preserved, displaced people will not be able to make property claims, or even to establish their identities or those of their children.

In the former Yugoslavia, many property documents were willfully destroyed in the process of "ethnic cleansing," and displaced people have had great difficulty in returning to their former homes as a result.