WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military is conducting a sensitive operation in northern Iraq to spirit out of the country a huge cache of Iraqi government records and videotapes documenting what Kurdish leaders call a campaign of torture and execution that killed tens of thousands of Kurds in recent years.
Human rights organizations say they will use the documents to determine whether the Baghdad government of Saddam Hussein could be charged with violating the 1948 United Nations convention on genocide.
The convention, which outlaws repression and killings intended to destroy "in whole or in part" any national ethnic group, was signed by Iraq in 1959.
Bush administration officials say the Pentagon issued an order this week authorizing U.S. aircraft and ground transport to enter northern Iraq to collect an estimated 30 tons of documents from Kurdish organizations, whose members seized them from the Iraqi police, military, and other Baghdad government files and have held them in remote hideouts.
The military operation follows months of negotiations involving the Pentagon, human rights groups and two Kurdish political groups that have been scouring former Iraqi police stations, interrogation centers and prisons for evidence to support their charge that Mr. Hussein's government systematically executed tens of thousands of Kurds in an effort to break the long-running rebellion by the Kurds in Iraq.
Kurdish forces control most of the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan and have failed during a year of negotiations to win concessions from Mr. Hussein for autonomy.
Mr. Hussein has put pressure on the region's 3.5 million residents by restricting food and fuel shipments to the Kurds, who mounted a rebellion against Baghdad after the end of the Persian Gulf war.
Public disclosure of the Iraqi secret police files would support the Bush administration's goal of demonstrating that Mr. Hussein has lost his legitimacy as an Iraqi leader and should be overthrown, a goal the State Department reiterated Friday.
But U.S. military leaders have been reluctant to take steps that might deepen their involvement in northern Iraq.
The decision to go ahead with the evacuation of the documents represents an increase of the effort to discredit Mr. Hussein before his people.
The Kurdish documentation effort first came to light last fall.
A small sampling of the documents and videotapes has reached the West through efforts by the New York-based human rights organization Middle East Watch and by Peter Galbraith, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member.
Administration officials said Middle East Watch and Mr. Galbraith had initiated talks with the Pentagon to get the transport and security assistance necessary to retrieve the documents in a way that would satisfy Kurdish concerns that they reach the West safely.
"This is a rare opportunity to record the atrocities of a brutal regime in its own words," Kenneth Roth, deputy director of the umbrella group of which Middle East Watch is a part.
He said the data would expose in minute detail "a police apparatus that has used torture, murder and disappearance against tens of thousands of Kurds and perceived political opponents."
The timing of the military operation depends on how quickly all of the documents can be taken by truck to undisclosed assembly points, where they will be picked up by military transport aircraft and flown to an air base in Turkey, U.S. officials said.
One official said transport flights are expected to begin this weekend and take up to a week as trucks bring more documents to assembly points near the Turkish border.
The final custody of the documents is still under discussion among Bush administration officials, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and human rights groups.
One plan to put them under the custody of the National Archives has run into opposition from the State Department, which is trying to keep U.S. involvement with the records at a minimum.
For now, Middle East Watch will have custody until a permanent repository can be found.