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Iraq: For Many, Destruction Of Cultural Sites The Most Devastating Aspect Of War

The looting and destruction of Iraqi museums, libraries, and other cultural sites that occurred during the U.S.-led takeover of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities has left many Iraqis in despair. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova reports from Iraq's National Museum on the importance of the country's rich cultural heritage for many of its citizens.

Baghdad, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For many Iraqis, the country's National Museum was the jewel in the crown of Iraq's cultural heritage.

One of the few available tourist guides on Iraq, printed in 1982, reads: "Few countries in the world are as rich in archaeology as Iraq. The Iraq [National] Museum, with its great, well-organized and carefully labeled collection of archaeological finds is a reflection of this richness."

It adds: "A record of the many peoples and cultures which flourished in Mesopotamia from time immemorial up to the centuries of the Arab Empire, the Museum offers a vivid display of prehistoric remains, of the civilizations and arts of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Seleucids, Parthians, Sassanians and Abbasids."

But this singular reflection of the region's rich history was dealt a serious setback after the arrival of American military forces in central Baghdad earlier this month. The symbolic fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein sparked days of riots and looting throughout the city. The National Museum was not spared.

The museum is now under heavy American guard, but the damage has been done. Many Iraqis have come in recent days to look at the ravaged museum.

For some, the ruined statues at the museum entrance are a reminder of more prosaic hardships as parts of the city struggle without electricity, water, or security.

But for the museum staff and long-time visitors -- like one 67-year-old retired doctor who once visited the museum's renowned library every morning -- the pillaging of the National Museum is a heartbreaking loss in and of itself.

"I am sure, if President Bush had seen the Iraq Museum, he wouldn't have attacked Iraq. He might have even tried to help the Iraqi Museum not to let looters rob the Iraqi Museum," he said.

This man now spends every day at the entrance door of the museum, hoping to catch word of the scale of the damage to the museum and its library, famous for its large collection of multilingual reading materials. Inside, Donny George, director-general of research and study of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities, is spending long days together with other antiquity experts assessing the extent of the damage done by the looters.

The entrance hall is now the site of a mountain of broken statues and ruined paintings and papers. The museum director says there are no clear answers to how many items have been stolen. What is clear, he says, is that nearly all of the museum's most precious relics and ancient artifacts are now either broken or missing.

George says the museum was targeted not only by ordinary looters but by well-organized criminal groups who knew the value of the museum's items: "We suspect that there were people -- specialists -- who could identify the important objects we had in the museum. And another part [of the plundering] was just to loot any kind of antiquities. And another part was just to loot [whatever] they see."

The museum's staff hold the U.S.-led forces responsible for the destruction and have demanded that American law-enforcement organizations help recover the stolen objects. A team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is working with museum experts to prepare a catalogue of the missing items. Jay Garner, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, has also promised to aid in the recovery effort.

An antiquities expert at the museum says there have been a few bright moments amid the chaos. He says a few important items -- like a bronze relief from the 4th century B.C. and a shattered statue of Assyrian King Shalmaneser the Third -- have been returned following calls on Iraqis to bring stolen relics back to the museum. Islamic and Christian leaders have also asked their communities to return any stolen objects.

But Ziyad Jureidini, another expert working at the museum, says chances are slim that the vast majority of looted treasures will ever be returned or restored. He says the fact that many of the looters removed the museum's most precious items means they are likely headed for sale on the flourishing antiquities black market.

"[Museums] are not morally but by law prohibited from buying and dealing in such stuff. But there are so many rich people who are collectors," Jureidini said. "There is a thriving black market where [exorbitant] prices are paid for such antiquities. So there is no problem [finding people to sell them to]."

The retired doctor, who is still waiting for American guards to allow him to enter the museum and see the destruction, speaks with great sadness as he admits the National Museum will never be the same again:

"There were so many things [here] you can't return them [all]. A person dies; can he be reborn again? No. And the same thing is [true] here.

But at the same time, he notes that wherever you dig in Iraq, you find either oil or antiquities. "If foreigners know Iraq only for its oil and care only about Iraqi oil," he says, "Iraqis themselves will take care of digging deep in their soil, which is the cradle of human civilization, and finding more proof of their great history."