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Iraq: Looters Cart Off Treasures And A Part Of World Heritage May Be Lost Forever

  • Kathleen Moore

As U.S. and British forces swept into Iraqi cities last week, looters seized their chance and went on a rampage. In addition to presidential palaces and government ministries, many of Iraq's museums and libraries were emptied, ransacked of priceless treasures that chronicled the very beginnings of civilization. Now there's a scramble to track down the missing valuables and prevent further looting.

Prague, 18 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Open any book on Mesopotamian history and chances are you'll see a picture of a distinctive 5,000-year-old carved stone vase.

The tall, thin vase shows a procession of naked men carrying food and other offerings to a goddess. The carvings are some of the earliest known depictions of ritual.

The vase used to stand in the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. Now it's gone -- one of perhaps hundreds of thousands of items looted since U.S. troops swept into the capital and ousted Saddam Hussein's regime.

"This is material that is of global significance in the evolution of civilization."

Jeremy Black is an expert in ancient Mesopotamia at Oxford University in the United Kingdom: "What was going on in Iraq, in Mesopotamia, was the first evolution of cities. Uruk, the city where [the vase] was found, was one of the first major urban settlements in southern Mesopotamia and that means in the world, because that's where at that time the first cities evolved and the first writing evolved."

It is hard to grasp the scale of the cultural looting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, such as Mosul.

Gone are objects that chronicled the very beginnings of civilization. They include clay tablets imprinted with the world's first writing. Sophisticated sculptures in gold or cast metal. Some of the world's first legal documents and texts showing early -- and advanced -- mathematical knowledge. Many of the texts had yet to be analyzed, so the world may never know what was in them.

The loss has been compared to the burning of the library at Alexandria more than 1,000 years ago. Or the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in the 13th century. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the looting and destruction of Baghdad's historical artifacts "a wound inflicted on all humankind."

Historians and academics -- not to mention many ordinary Iraqis -- are distraught. They are angry that coalition troops stood by when many of the treasures were carted off. Why, they ask, did troops protect the country's oil wells and Baghdad's oil ministry but did little or nothing to prevent the wholesale looting of antiquities?

U.S. officials say they're not to blame. In any case, they say, they had other things on their minds -- notably, fighting a war.

U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, a spokesman for Central Command in Qatar, said earlier this week: "I don't think that anyone anticipated that the riches of Iraq would be looted by the Iraqi people."

Not so, say the academics. Some of them met with Pentagon officials before the Iraq war to tell them of sites that should be protected from bombing and looting.

They say the aftermath of the first Gulf War should have served as a warning, too. Several thousand items were looted then. Only a few were ever recovered.

Two cultural advisers to the U.S. government resigned in protest yesterday. One said, "It didn't have to happen."

Black and other experts say some of the looters appear to have been well prepared: "You've got this organized looting by people who knew what they were after and may -- as has been suggested -- have been stealing to order. They've targeted particular objects and spirited them away, and they will probably be out of the country. Some of them have apparently already turned up on the art market in Paris. And then there are things that were in the museum and were just smashed by the other group of looters, who were basically poor people from Saddam City and other [Baghdad] suburbs. These people, I think, were smashing anything they thought was connected with the regime."

With so many precious artifacts stolen, smashed, or burned, it seems a little late to do anything. But experts are calling for urgent action to try and recover or save as much as possible.

Officials from the UN's cultural arm, UNESCO, met in Paris on 17 April with experts to assess the scale of the destruction and to discuss what to do next.

The head of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, called for a freeze on trade in Iraqi cultural objects and for "heritage police" to protect further looting. An "antiquities amnesty" has also been suggested so that the items could be safely returned without the looters being prosecuted.

Interpol and the U.S.'s FBI say they're sending experts to Iraq to help efforts to recover some of the treasures.

Universities are already posting details of thousands of objects on the Internet to help police and art dealers spot stolen items.

Mounir Bouchenaki, UNESCO's assistant director-general for culture, said on 17 April: "Interpol has been already informed, as well as ICON, the International Consul of Museums, as well as the International Association of Art Dealers. And just recently, when we saw the pictures of the museum of Baghdad looted on Friday afternoon, we sent from UNESCO a letter to all the ministries of culture of the surrounding countries, requesting them to put some more surveillance and put more police and inform the customs of the possibility of objects getting out of Iraq."

Black says there is one more thing museums throughout Iraq can do -- stop their floors from being cleared of debris. That way, some pieces that were smashed can be recovered.

It will be, Black says, like turning the museums themselves into archeological digs.