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Iraq Gives Glimpse Of Looted National Museum

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the National Museum's reopening ceremony
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq has partially reopened its National Museum, once a trove of artifacts dating back to the dawn of civilization but which was plundered after the 2003 invasion while U.S. troops stood by.

Around 6,000 items out of around 15,000 stolen when order collapsed following the fall of Saddam Hussein were back on display. But only eight of the museum's more than 20 wings were reopened due to a dispute between government departments.

Tourism and antiquities officials wanted the museum to open to great fanfare as a symbol that Iraq is emerging from years of sectarian slaughter and is now capable not just of securing its people but also priceless cultural treasures and tourists.

The Culture Ministry objected, saying the museum was not ready and that the security situation remained too precarious.

As a compromise, only part of the museum showcasing 11,000 years of human history was opened, and only to arranged groups, like students, not the general public.

"We are going to inaugurate the Iraqi museum now, but don't expect it to be what it was before, when 26 wings told the story of Iraq through the ages," museum director Amira Eidan told dignitaries and journalists.

"We have focused in particular on exhibiting the antiquities looted in 2003 but which have been recovered," she said to a backdrop of photos from 2003 showing toppled statues, smashed doors, and shattered pottery from ancient Mesopotamia.

The displays were a shadow of what they were before looters smashed through the doors while U.S. troops stood guard at the Oil Ministry but did little to stop the plunder elsewhere.

Iraq lies in the "Cradle of Civilization" between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The marshlands in the south are believed to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden.

The theft and destruction of artifacts from the museum was viewed by archaeologists as a tragedy not just for Iraq but for the whole world.

"Stuff happens," then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the time, dismissing criticism.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki thanked countries such as Syria and Iran that helped Iraq reclaim some of the looted artifacts. Some have been discovered as far away as Latin America.

Around 6,000 of the 15,000 items stolen from the museum have been returned and 10,000 items taken from other archaeological sites, such as Babylon, recovered, Iraqi officials said.

"It was a fierce wave and wild black winds that swept through Iraq," al-Maliki said. "But we have managed to stop those black winds and to resume rebuilding and reconstruction."

The museum is a central plank in a strategy to bolster tourism. Washington provided $13 million to help restore it.

The reopening, partial as it was, almost did not happen because of feuding between Iraq's minister of state for tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Jiburi, and the Culture Ministry. In the end, it looked like al-Jiburi won.

"Some factions tried to politicize the inauguration of the museum, while others underestimated Iraqi abilities in archaeology. Still others tried to delay the opening on the pretext of security and potential hazards," he said.

"We would like the whole world to come and see Baghdad just as it was before and to see that it has not been turned into the ruins that the enemy desired."