Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq Report: October 12, 2006

October 12, 2006, Volume 9, Number 36

IRAQ'S ANTIQUITIES CONTINUE TO BE PILLAGED, DESTROYED. Archeologists and art historians who specialize in Iraq's ancient history are concerned that the country's vast collection of ancient monuments and artifacts is at risk of being destroyed or pillaged and sold on the international black market.

Often referred to as the "cradle of civilization," Iraq houses some of the world's greatest archeological treasures, with remnants of the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Babylon, Ur, and Nineveh. However, since the fall of the Hussein regime, UNESCO and archeologists have urged the international community to take steps to safeguard Iraq's cultural heritage.

Scholars have indicated that the state of Iraq's archeological and cultural treasures is grim. Immediately following the collapse of the former Iraqi regime and the subsequent breakdown of law and order, the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad was looted. The museum's staff indicated that almost 14,000 pieces were stolen and only about 5,400 have so far been recovered, many from the black market in the United States, Italy, England, and Switzerland, "All Headline News" reported on September 16.

Furthermore, several religiously significant and historically important Islamic shrines and mosque have also been damaged or destroyed. In April 2005, the famous spiraling Malwiya minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra were badly damaged by insurgents when they used it to attack coalition forces. In February 2006, the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the most revered Shi'ite shrines, was destroyed, setting off a wave of sectarian violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006).

Dr. McGuire Gibson, an expert in Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago, told "The Washington Post" on September 13 that the condition of many of Iraq's antiquities was horrible and looting continues. The looting "hasn't stopped," he said. "There has been the looting of sites on an industrial scale. Some of the greatest Sumerian sites have gone."

Ministry Sets Own Agenda

A different type of threat to Iraq's cultural heritage has emerged since the Shi'ite-dominated government took power in December. The strong showing by radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr enabled his movement to gain control of four ministries in the al-Maliki-led administration, including the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Traditionally, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees Iraq's archeological and cultural heritage sites, was under the control of the Culture Ministry, but it now falls under the jurisdiction of the Tourism Ministry. Liwa Sumaysim -- a dentist by trade and whose wife, a member of parliament, is a relative of al-Sadr -- was appointed to head the ministry.

Shortly thereafter, many of the most highly regarded Iraqi archeologists and scholars at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage were either forced to retire or were fired and replaced with religious fundamentalists, London's "The Times" reported on September 15.

Burhan Shakur, an archeologist and director of excavations at the Iraqi National Museum, was fired and later given the option to retire. The inspector for antiquities in Dhi Qar Governorate, Abd al-Amir Hamdan, was arrested in April on corruption charges, imprisoned for three months, released, and charges were later dropped. His successor was a man with affiliations to the Islamic Virtue Party (Al-Fadilah), which has close ties to al-Sadr's movement, "The New York Times" reported on September 12.

Former employees at the board have voiced concern that the ministry has removed the most qualified individuals who have the expertise to maintain and care for the priceless and often delicate antiquities. Dr. Donny George, the former president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and a prominent Iraqi archeologist, expressed frustration with the ministry. "I can no longer work with these people who have come in with the new ministry," "The Times" quoted him as saying on September 15. "They have no knowledge of archaeology, no knowledge of antiquities, nothing." He also accused the ministry of cutting ties with museums and cultural institutions around the world, which would severely curtail its ability to care for archeological sites.

George, a Christian, told Britain's Channel 4 television in an interview on September 13 that his family received a letter accusing his son of blaspheming Islam and harassing Muslim girls. The note, accompanied with a bullet, demanded that the family pay a fine of $1,000. That incident and the subsequent rumors that he would be fired as president of the board because he was a Christian, prompted George to flee with his family to Damascus.

Pre-Islamic Treasures Threatened

In addition, there is growing speculation that the ministry is only focusing on protecting Islamic sites and artifacts and turning a blind eye to pre-Islamic ones. Looting in the southern Dhi Qar Governorate, an area rich in pre-Islamic sites, has been increasing. Two pre-Islamic statues were recently returned to the National Museum with a note attached to them referring to the pieces as "idols."

In 2004, the Al-Nasiriyah Museum, which contained a huge collection of Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Abbasid artifacts, was burned and looted. Guards at the museum reportedly heard militants say they would do to the antiquities "what the Taliban did", the "International Herald Tribune" reported on September 12 -- an apparent reference to the Taliban's 2001 destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan on the grounds they were idolatrous.

Elizabeth Stone, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York who has conducted numerous excavations in southern Iraq, accused the ministry of not doing enough to protect pre-Islamic sites. "What is striking is that the Islamic parts are left alone, whereas the immediate pre-Islamic sites are not", she said. She also said she heard rumors that Islamic militants were looting artifacts and selling them to fund their activities.

The continuing destruction of Iraq's archeological sites and artifacts may have a drastic impact on Iraq's future. Not only will a rich cultural legacy be lost for future generations of Iraqis, but Iraq's remaining antiquities, if protected and maintained, could serve as a centerpiece for a thriving tourist industry. As the University of Chicago's McGuire Gibson noted in the "International Herald Tribune" on September 12, "Antiquities are key to Iraq's economy; at some point the oil will run out. Iraqi tourism will be built on archaeology." (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on October 12.)

IRAQI POLICE CONTINUE TO FACE TRAINING DIFFICULTIES. The strengthening of Iraq's security forces has been one of the foundations for the U.S.-led coalition since the ouster of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003. While the ranks of the police continue to grow, they face numerous difficulties, such as being targeted by insurgents, being infiltrated by militia elements, and by some accounts being inadequately trained.

As U.S. forces continue to attempt to play more of a supporting role in security operations, the Iraqi police are now bearing the brunt of insurgent attacks. The U.S. commander of the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team in Iraq, Major General Joseph Peterson, said on October 8 that about 4,000 Iraqi policemen have been killed and more than 8,000 have been wounded over the past two years in insurgent attacks, international media reported the same day.

"Policemen, national policemen, border policemen have paid a great price over the last couple of years here in Iraq to build the forces that are necessary to provide safe and secure environment to the people of Iraq ", Peterson said.

Earlier this year, a spokesman told congressional researchers that 1,497 Iraqi policemen have been killed and 3,256 wounded in 2005. The data indicates a steep increase in the casualty rate among Iraqi police.

Militia Infiltration

There have been widespread allegations that the police force, which is under the control of the Shi'ite-dominated Interior Ministry, has been infiltrated by militia elements that then use their position as policemen to carry out sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs and other perceived enemies. Shi'ite Arabs belonging to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the affiliated Badr Organization largely comprise the police forces.

In November 2005, U.S. and Iraqi forces found several secret detention centers run by the Interior Ministry holding hundreds of prisoners, many showing visible signs of abuse and torture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2005). The detainees were almost exclusively Sunni Arabs and the disclosure led to the inspection of roughly 1,000 Iraqi jails.

Earlier this month the Iraqi government suspended around 700 policemen from the 8th Brigade of the 2nd Division and ordered them to undergo retraining and vetting after allegations that some among their ranks were linked to militias and death squads (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006). The brigade is suspected of allowing Shi'ite militias to kidnap 24 workers, mostly Sunni Arabs, from a meat-processing factory in Baghdad on October 1. The bodies of seven workers were later found in Baghdad, but the fate of the other 17 is unknown.

Although it is difficult to gauge how many militia members have infiltrated the ranks of the police, the "The New York Times" quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official on September 16 as saying that of the 27 paramilitary police battalions, "we think five or six battalions probably have leaders that have led that part of the organization [the police] in a way that is either criminal or sectarian of both."

Refurbished Baghdad Police Academy A 'Disaster'

The much-vaunted construction of the Baghdad Police College came under harsh criticism by the special inspector-general for Iraq reconstruction, Stewart Bowman, in a September 28 report. He lambasted the $75 million project as being grossly mismanaged, saying some buildings were so poorly constructed that it posed health hazards for its recruits and instructors. Some of the problems were so severe that the facility may need to be partially demolished and then rebuilt.

The most serious problem was inadequate plumbing, which caused human waste from toilets and urinals on the second and third floors to spill over into the rest of the building and in one area at such a rapid rate that "the Baghdad Police College director refers to this room as the 'Rain Forest,'" the report stated. Furthermore, the leakage destroyed lighting fixtures throughout the facility and threatened the integrity of load-bearing slabs, making some buildings unsafe.

The Coalition Provisional Authority planned in 2004 to transform the college, a collection of 60-year-old buildings, into a modern training facility that would eventually house up to 4,000 recruits. The project was seen as a top priority by U.S. military leaders, underscoring the importance of an adequately trained Iraqi police force and their critical role in allowing for a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"This is the most essential civil security project in the country -- and it's a failure," Bowen said, "The "Washington Post" reported on September 27. "The Baghdad police academy is a disaster."

Signs Of Improvement

Iraqi and U.S. officials have noted that although problems remain within the ranks of the Iraqi police, there have been marked improvements. Major General Peterson said during a press conference on October 7 that currently there are 186,000 trained policemen, near the final goal of 188,000 and some officials even expect to exceed that number by 10,000 at year's end, AP reported.

Furthermore, U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said during a press briefing on October 4, that Phase 1 of the national police-assessment program, called Quick Look, which began early this summer to assess each battalion's capability and readiness, has ended. He said that Phase 2, which focuses on leader and police-transformational training will be initiated shortly and all Iraqi police units will have completed this phase by summer 2007.

Also, the Iraqi Interior Ministry has taken steps to change police uniforms in a bid to prevent gangs and death squads from masquerading as policemen to carry out sectarian attacks. Police commanders have indicated that imposters using stolen or counterfeit police uniforms have been responsible for many of these attacks and the uniforms are easily available in marketplaces in and around Baghdad.

Iraqi police Colonel Abd al-Munim Jassim stressed on October 10 that new precautions would be taken to prevent criminal elements from faking the uniforms, such as photographing policemen together with the number of the uniform, AFP reported on the same day, referring to a database that can track the serial number of the uniforms with photographs of the officers that wear them. If the uniforms are found in another location, then it will be known immediately that they were stolen.

Major General Peterson noted that the new uniforms were part of the overall strategy of strengthening and transforming the Iraqi police. "These new uniforms and also the new standard markings for the vehicles of the national police...begin the process of transformation", he said.

Arguably, the Iraqi police are in the best position to tackle insurgent elements with their close ties to the community and local knowledge. They are much more adept at gathering intelligence on insurgent activity in their community than an outsider. However, as long as the police, particularly in troubled areas, have a reputation for being brutal and having sectarian alliances, they will have difficulty in gaining the trust of the local population. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on October 12.)