For the last five years, Sara Farhan has been researching medical education in Iraq. A doctoral student of history at Toronto's York University, Farhan has been trying to piece together the story of the Royal Medical College of Baghdad - a dynamic and innovative institution during Iraq's Hashemite monarchy.

To do her research, the 31-year-old Farhan has interviewed more than 20 members of the Iraqi diaspora, spread out across the Middle East, North America, and Europe. She's collected oral histories and talked to former doctors and medical students and their families, spinning together a web of people connected to the university. But if she had embarked on this research 15 years ago, Farhan likely would not have had to crisscross the globe to tell the story.

In the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq's National Museum and a variety of archives were plundered as American soldiers stood watch. Millions of pages of documents were either destroyed in fires and flooding, taken by thieves profiting off the war, or purposefully removed by American officials tracking down Iraq's mythical weapons of mass destruction. The overwhelming majority of those documents, including the archive of the Royal Medical College, remain unaccounted for. It's a devastating loss for the country - and a huge problem for researchers.

Had Farhan been able to utilize the archive in her work, "I would've graduated two years ago," she said in an interview, laughing.

LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 682 -- Pictured: (l-r) Journalist Rukmini Callimachi during an interview with host Seth Meyers on May 7, 2018 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Journalist Rukmini Callimachi during an interview with TV host Seth Meyers on May 7, 2018.

Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

In early April, Farhan's frustrations with the erasure of so much of Iraq's archival history came to a head when she read a piece in the New York Times. "The ISIS Files" is about the inner workings of the so-called Islamic State, based on more than 15,000 pages of internal documents that reporter Rukmini Callimachi removed from Iraq over a period of more than a year. The documents tell a detailed story of ISIS rule, laying out mundane bureaucratic procedures, such as levying taxes, collecting trash, and issuing birth certificates. Callimachi presents these files as evidence that the militants realized their dream of establishing their own state, albeit temporarily. It's a dramatic narrative of history that probably gives too much credit to ISIS, however. Callimachi acknowledges, after all, that ISIS didn't build its state from the ground up — it pretty much modeled its rule on the bureaucratic framework of the Iraqi state it had pushed out.

"Individually, each piece of paper documents a single, routine interaction: A land transfer between neighbors. The sale of a ton of wheat. A fine for improper dress," Callimachi wrote. "But taken together, the documents in the trove reveal the inner workings of a complex system of government. ... The world knows the Islamic State for its brutality, but the militants did not rule by the sword alone. They wielded power through two complementary tools: brutality and bureaucracy."

Over the last four years, journalists, analysts, and local activists from Iraq and Syria have written about ISIS documents, including some that were taken from the countries in which they were found. But Callimachi appears to be the first journalist to obtain and remove a cache of documents this large. She traveled to Iraq when coalition forces launched a battle to retake Mosul from ISIS in late 2016. There, she was on the front lines, rushing into buildings that were cleared of the militants and stuffing documents and hard drives into trash bags she had brought with her. But her story, and her new "Caliphate" podcast, which is based in part on the documents she obtained, have set off a controversy about outsiders taking historically important documents out of a country at war.

About a week after the piece was published, Farhan emailed Callimachi to ask if she got permission from Iraqi government officials to take the documents, and if she got consent from the people named in the files to publish their names. Farhan didn't hear back, so she worked with two legal scholars to launch a petition calling on the Times to rethink its use of the documents. The removal of the documents violates international law, the petition authors wrote, calling for them to be returned to Iraq and warning that failure to do so would set a "dangerous precedent for the plundering of material and cultural heritage in conflict zones." This wasn't the only academic protest. In early May, Judith Tucker and Laurie Brand of the Middle East Studies Association published an open letter to top editors at the Times,  decrying the "myriad legal, professional, ethical, and moral issues" arising from Callimachi's story.

The controversy goes to issues that are far larger and deeper than the ISIS documents obtained by Callimachi. Her cache is minor when compared to the scores of millions of documents the U.S. government took from Iraq following the 2003 invasion. The controversy has resurfaced age-old questions about the ownership and protection of national documents in a time of war — not just in Iraq, and not just in this decade or century. How can Iraq or any country come to terms with its own history when its people no longer possess the documents that can help them better understand all that they've endured? What should journalists do when they come upon important documents that are abandoned or without protection during war?

View of stacked files created by the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party documenting torture, executions, and mass graves in Baghdad, Iraq on Oct. 19, 2003. The files are currently being handled by Kanan Makiya and his assistant, Hassan, of the Iraq Memory Foundation. Iraqi citizens and occupying forces recovered the files, which were created by Ba'ath party officials prior to the U.S. invasion.

Stacked files of the Baath Party documenting torture, executions, and mass graves, in Baghdad, Iraq, on Oct. 19, 2003. The files were being handled by Kanan Makiya's Iraq Memory Foundation.

Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII/Redux

For Iraqis like Farhan, Callimachi's removal of the documents reopened the wound caused by the U.S. government's expropriation of millions of pages of national documents after the 2003 invasion. Decades' worth of history under Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was disappeared, giving only the U.S. government — not the Iraqi people — the means to understand the machinations of Saddam's oppressive regime. This fits into a painful, centuries-long pattern of cultural theft across the world, with imperial invaders or colonizers taking artistic or architectural artifacts to display in their museums (or, as often turns out to be the case, to store in their basements).

Lawlessness prevailed after the fall of Baghdad, and a multitude of groups sought control of the documents that laid out modern Iraqi history. They ransacked the national archive, the Baath Party headquarters, and other government and military buildings. Members of the Baath Party tried to destroy documents that would incriminate them, while opposition members looked for records that would help build their case against the regime. But it was the U.S. government that ultimately collected the largest trove. The Coalition Provisional Authority, which was the U.S-led occupation government formed in the aftermath of the invasion, issued an order on May 23, 2003 that dissolved Iraq's military, as well as its security organizations, presidential secretariat, and National Assembly. The assets of those entities, including records and data, were to be held by the CPA administrator - at the time, U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer - "on behalf of and for the benefit of the Iraqi people and shall be used to assist the Iraqi people and to support the recovery of Iraq," according to the order.

That's not quite what happened, however. Coalition authorities later flew millions of pages of documents out of the country to Qatar for study by the Iraq Survey Group - a group of American, British, and Australian officials focused on their fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda. In an October 2004 statement, Iraq Survey Group Commander Brig. Gen. Joseph McMenamin said there were "hundreds of linguists, analysts, and administrators working to triage, gist, and load the documents and other media into national databases." By that point, the Iraq Survey Group had scanned 40 million pages of documents, according to McMenamin.

But that's just part of what the United States took. According to a 2008 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which cited information from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the United States "recovered" more than "120 million plus pages" of documents from Iraq. (Bremer, the CPA administrator, told Wisam Alshaibi, a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, that the U.S. had seized seven linear miles of documents.) The Defense Department kept the documents out of circulation, and most of them remain unaccounted for, but a small percentage were available for some time in at least three separate collections.

The first is a public database, called the Harmony Program, that was maintained by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. By October 2004, the Iraq Survey Group had loaded about 150,000 files from its trove into that database, McMenamin said in his statement. The Harmony Program website notes that the documents "were collected on the battlefield unscientifically," but otherwise the website doesn't make clear how exactly the documents were obtained. That database also includes records captured in Afghanistan, as well as records seized by the U.S. military from an Al Qaeda affiliate in Sinjar, Iraq, in 2007. (Critics said the inclusion of the Iraq documents in the Harmony Program was an attempt by the Bush administration to legitimize its prewar narrative of operational ties between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda.)

The second collection was the "Saddam Hussein Regime Collection" at the National Defense University's Conflict Records Research Center. The 53,000-page collection included documents from Iraqi government and military units, Saddam's personal and political correspondence, as well as 200 hours of recordings of Saddam's meetings with his deputies. Access to it was tightly controlled: Researchers had to obtain Institutional Review Board approval of their research plans before being granted permission to view the archive, housed in Washington, D.C. As Arbella Bet-Shlimon, a history professor at the University of Washington, wrote in a recent article for the Middle East Research and Information Project, "After the center closed in 2015 due to a lack of funding, however, the materials in its possession became entirely inaccessible to scholars of any nationality."

How can Iraq or any country come to terms with its own history when its people no longer possess the documents that can help them better understand all that they've endured?

The third collection was the "Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal," a website the federal government created in March 2006 that made public thousands of pages of documents captured in Iraq. The website was created largely in response to pressure from conservative lawmakers, led by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who said U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to adequately analyze the documents, which may have contained evidence related to Iraqi WMD programs. But the government took the website down in November 2006, following an inquiry from the New York Times about concerns from weapons experts that the documents contained a basic guide to building an atom bomb. Some of the documents had no link to the Baath regime or prewar Iraq, raising questions about the government's decision to release them. "The fact that the only such relics to worm their way into the Operation Iraqi Freedom Documents focus on al-Qaida, the jihadist fringe and unconventional weapons strongly suggests an attempt to reinforce the Bush administration's prewar claim of ties between a WMD-hungry Saddam and al-Qaida terrorists," wrote history professor Fritz Umbach in an April 2006 article for Salon.

The U.S. military has been involved with at least three other sets of documents from Iraq. In 1991, Kurdish groups seized an estimated 18 tons of Baath Party documents from northern Iraq. The Kurds turned the documents over to the U.S. military and Human Rights Watch, which used them to investigate the Anfal massacre, the Saddam regime's genocidal campaign against Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War. In May 2003, the U.S. Army discovered a trove of documents in a flooded basement about Iraqi Jews; the U.S. National Archives has since digitized the collection, which is available online. Lastly, the U.S.-based Iraq Memory Foundation collected millions of pages of Baath Party documents from Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, which it got approval from the U.S. military to maintain custody over. Those documents are now housed at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in northern California.

The United States has removed documents from other conflict zones as well. After World War II, the United States and Great Britain maintained custody of German documents, and the U.S. Army ran centers in Germany to help the Allies gather intelligence from those documents. The U.S. eventually began to return the documents to Germany, but when historians raised concerns about losing access to documents that could be used for their research, the U.S. Army began the process of microfilming the documents, according to a blog post on the website of the National Archives. After the documents were declassified and microfilmed, the originals were shipped back to Germany. According to the blog post, "By March 1968, the Army had returned 35 shipments of records captured during the war." That was more than two decades after their seizure.

In Haiti, U.S. troops seized approximately 160,000 documents in 1994 "without the knowledge or consent of Haitian authorities," according to Human Rights Watch. In 1995, the Clinton administration said it would return the documents after working with Haitian officials to ensure the documents would be used to investigate possible crimes. By 1999, the United States had not yet returned the documents, saying that it would only do so after deleting the names of U.S. citizens. "This apparently serves the illegitimate purpose of covering up U.S. complicity in political murder and other abuses," Human Rights Watch wrote at the time. Shortly before his departure from office, President Bill Clinton ordered that the documents be returned to Haiti, on the condition that they be used only in judicial proceedings, said Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. "The documents were transferred to a locked room in the basement of the National Palace," Concannon said. "We tried to get access for three years, to help build our cases against the military and paramilitary leadership, but were unable."

More recently, and with a lot more fanfare, the United States seized a large amount of files when it raided Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, killing the Al Qaeda leader. The files included bin Laden's personal journal and documents related to Al Qaeda's operations. U.S. intelligence agencies have released copies of some of those documents, most recently with a dump of nearly 470,000 files last November. "The information remaining in the Abbottabad collection that has not been released publicly includes materials that are sensitive such that their release would directly damage efforts to keep the nation secure; materials protected by copyright; pornography; malware; and blank, corrupted and duplicate files," the CIA said in a statement at the time.

Iraqi children watch U.S. Marines after they took control of the Ministry of Oil building in Baghdad Wednesday, April 9, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Iraqi children watch U.S. Marines after they took control of the Ministry of Oil building in Baghdad, April 9, 2003.

Photo: Jerome Delay/AP

As an occupying force, the United States was obligated under international law to ensure public order in Iraq, and prevent looting and other lawless activities. The 1907 Hague Convention, which governs land warfare and is considered binding on all nations, prohibits the pillaging and destruction of cultural heritage. Under the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the United States had a duty to protect cultural property, which includes "property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people," such as "collections of books or archives."

These protections were not applied as U.S. forces took control of Iraq. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, museums, banks, hotels, and libraries were left unprotected and were ransacked - most notably, the National Museum in Baghdad. In a sign of U.S. priorities, however, the Ministry of Oil was rigorously guarded by American soldiers who saved it from the pillaging that was occurring throughout the Iraqi capital at the time.

There is a carve-out in international law for documents that involve wartime intelligence. Under the 1907 Hague Convention, invading and occupying powers can capture adversary records of the state; anything that can be used for military purposes - such as the documents seized by the Iraq Survey Group - is considered a spoil of war. Similarly, international law does not dictate if and how such documents should be returned after the cessation of hostilities; rather, that is a matter to be diplomatically decided.

International law is less clear when it comes to the conduct of nongovernmental actors, such as the Iraq Memory Foundation, the group that removed millions of documents from Iraq in 2003. In a 2011 paper on the Baath Party archive removed by the Iraq Memory Foundation, Bruce Montgomery, a professor at the University of Colorado, noted that international wartime norms are silent on the conduct of non-state actors. He concluded that the Iraq Memory Foundation did not appear to violate international, U.S., or Iraqi law. But Michelle Caswell, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, reached a different conclusion in a 2011 paper. "Given the available information, the Baath Party records might have been collected using means outside those recommended by international law," she wrote, noting that international law could not adequately address the Baath Party records, which she considers to fall under the domain of "cultural property."

Questions about the ownership of the ISIS documents removed by the New York Times are even more complicated since ISIS is not a sovereign state. Nasser Weddady, a Boston-based analyst who consulted with Callimachi on her "Caliphate" podcast, said there are a number of groups that could lay a claim to ownership of the ISIS documents. "Saying these are Iraqi documents is a little problematic because the state of Iraq does not recognize ISIS as an Iraqi organization," he said. The de facto capital of ISIS was Raqqa, Syria, and "many of the members of the group were from Syria, so someone could make a claim that the documents were from Syria." ISIS has also recruited members from all over the world, and the governments of those countries might also say that they have a right to information about ISIS in the name of national security, he added.

In their letter to the Times, Tucker and Brand of the Middle East Studies Association said the Iraqi state alone had a right to the documents. "It is only legally designated representatives of the Iraqi state, and certainly not foreign journalists," they wrote, "who should control the disposition of any documents found in circumstances like those in which Ms. Callimachi and her team operated, in accordance with Iraqi law and regulations governing public records."

Associate Librarian Deanna Marcum, Baghdad Mayor Alaa al-Tamimi, and president of the Iraqi Memory Foundation Kanan Makiya at the "New Iraq: Memory and National Identity" forum at the Library of Congress.

Photo: Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images