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Alas, Babylon! How the Bush Administration allowed the sack of Iraq's antiquities - arts - Iraq Museum

Almira Poudrier

From April 8-11, 2003, U.S. armed forces rolled through Baghdad, Iraq, meeting only sporadic resistance. The looting began before the fighting ended. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's palaces and the houses of his cronies were only the beginning. Hospitals, schools, university buildings, private offices, and businesses were all targeted by looters. The Iraq Museum, the national museum of antiquities in Baghdad and the most complete collection of Near Eastern artifacts in the world, wasn't spared. Over the course of two days, the Iraq Museum was systematically pillaged and vandalized. Waves of looters stripped the museum's 120 offices to the walls, taking computers, furniture, office supplies; smashing replicas and personal items; and destroying everything they didn't take. They pulled doors off their hinges, ripped down wallpaper, and smashed holes in walls. All over the offices and into the galleries they scattered files, papers, photos, and records which catalogued the museum's holdings.

More importantly, of course, the collections themselves were ransacked. Since the staff had removed all but the heaviest artifacts from the twenty-eight public galleries of the museum, the first waves of looters found only large items. While gunfire was audible in the background, they overturned statues, took what pieces they could carry, and left others lying broken on the floor. They shattered pottery and scattered the fragments, crushing shards to dust underfoot. Some came prepared, using trucks and other vehicles to haul away items too heavy to carry. Some treasures hidden in vaults escaped the pillage only for a short time. Groups of looters returned later, broke through a bricked-up door, and entered the vaults below the museum, where more of the collections were stored. In these dark recesses, looters grabbed anything that looked valuable, broke open sealed containers, and swept objects from shelves onto the floor, creating paths of destruction as they walked over the ruins of their own heritage.

For historians, archaeologists, and museum professionals, the pictures of smashed pottery and shattered stone that circulated in the news media were unimaginable--as wrenching as the pictures of injured children, dead soldiers, and the wreckage of homes. Nothing can replace the loss of human life, and no price can be placed on human suffering. The artifacts lost and destroyed at the museum are irreplaceable as well. These objects weren't just stone and metal and clay. They were windows to the ancient world; they shed light on the humans we used to be. The loss of each one darkens the room and hinders our understanding of our own history.

What has been lost at the Iraq Museum is the tangible and beautiful evidence of some of our first achievements as human beings. The museum boasted eighty thousand tablets full of cuneiform, the oldest known form of writing. Humanity's first written laws, recorded in Hammurabi's Code, were housed at the Iraq Museum. Dedicatory statues from religions that predated the Greeks by centuries were part of the collection. The exquisite bronze head of Sargon of Nineveh, roughly dating 2350 BCE, is an artifact of one of the world's first military superpowers. At 5,500 years old, a woman's head in stone is one of the earliest known examples of human self-representation. The Warka Vase, a five thousand year old alabaster bowl, came from Uruk, the city featured in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest hero stories created by human beings.

The Iraq Museum at Baghdad housed the most spectacular items, but there were losses in many other places as well. The damage to Iraq's thousands of archaeological sites may take months to all be reported, but many of the smaller museums at these sites were also looted. Some were burned, such as Babylon's Nebuchadnezzar Museum. The Mosul Museum was bombed and looted; losses there may turn out to be more extensive than those in Baghdad. Reports indicate that some looting took place at the Basra Museum as well. Ironically, many of the smaller regional museums had removed their important collections to the vaults of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad for safekeeping.

Libraries were also burned, including the National Library of Iraq, the National Archives of Iraq, the Al-Awqaf Library serving the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and the Central Libraries of the Universities of Baghdad and Mosul. Tens of thousands of rare texts, including Islamic manuscripts and historical Ottoman records, went up in smoke, along with the entire collections of these libraries--in all totaling more than a million books. Reporter Robert Fisk watched in anguish as looters trashed and burned the National Library and the National Archives. He writes in an April 15, 2003, Independent article, "All over the filthy yard they blew, letters of recommendation to the courts of Arabia, demands for ammunition for Ottoman troops, reports on the theft of camels and attacks on Pilgrims, all of them in delicate hand-written Arabic script. I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq's written history." It appears that despite the best efforts of Iraqi and international academics, the looting has continued. On May 2, 2003, the Chicago Tribune reported that the prestigious library of Bayt-al-Hikma was completely destroyed while the library's members stood by and wept.

Recent news has lifted the despair a little with regard to the Iraq Museum. Initial reports indicated that the entire collection, somewhere around 170,000 items, had been lost or destroyed. As the dust settled, these reports were happily revised downward, and hopefully they will continue to be. After the museum's most important and portable pieces had been removed to hidden storage vaults before the war, it was then believed that all these vaults had been discovered and looted. Some vaults were indeed corrupted, but it now appears that at least some of these hidden spaces weren't discovered, or the looters weren't able to enter them. Experts stress, however, that no one else has yet been able to enter these spaces, so the status of much of the collection remains unknown. And some storage spaces under the Central Bank, for example, were inexplicably flooded, which will create a whole new set of problems for any artifacts stored there. The process of assessing the losses may take months.

Some objects have now been recovered. Experts from the international community gathered in the days following the looting to address the situation. The British Museum and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute have been at the forefront of a growing impetus to catalogue the losses and attempt to recover some items. The Oriental Institute is using the Internet to circulate images and descriptions of the artifacts in an effort to hinder the international movement of these items. Appeals by Islamic clergy in Iraq and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents sent to investigate and recover artifacts have produced some results. Looters have already returned several hundred items, collected at mosques and by U.S. troops in Iraq. Also, the New York Times has reported that some enlightened Baghdadis, witnessing the chaos at the Iraq Museum, joined in the looting with good intentions. They rescued what they could for safekeeping and have since returned some very important pieces to the museum.

Reports from Baghdad have indicated that at least the initial looting of the Iraqi Museum may have been organized or financed by professional thieves. These people had keys, came prepared with glass cutters, knew where to locate the best pieces, bypassed decoys and copies for the real objects, and broke off the heads from some statues--a common tactic of professional thieves. They may have also bribed guards to get information or keys to gain access to the museum. This is disturbing, since objects targeted by professional thieves are probably destined for the black market, making the likelihood of recovery very slim. In addition, U.S. troops don't yet seem to be effectively stopping the flow of antiquities across Iraq's borders. Dr. Donny George, director of the Iraq Museum, reported to the British Museum on April 29, 2003, that U.S. troops at the borders weren't enforcing any controls. Instead, some objects had been recovered on the Jordanian side of the border, where officials were searching everyone thoroughly.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the. looting stems from the fact that the thefts and vandalism could so easily have been prevented. It took a concerted effort of negligence on all levels to bring about this catastrophe. After first indicating that the looting wasn't unexpected, the Bush administration later tried to shirk responsibility for the negligence that allowed the Iraq Museum to be sacked, saying on April 15 that no one anticipated that the Iraqis would loot their own riches. This is patently untrue. Months before the beginning of the war, a chorus of voices warned of just this possibility. The Archaeological Institute of America, the American Association of Museum Art Directors, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the American Association for Research in Baghdad, to name only the most major organizations, sent letters to the administration pleading for the protection of archaeological sites and museums in Iraq.

Academics held two major concerns before the war: first, that new bombing would further damage or even destroy ancient sites such as Nineveh, Babylon, and Ur; and second, that in the aftermath of urban combat, collections gathered in city museums could be looted. The letters reminded the administration of the 1991 Gulf War, when at many sites a great deal of looting occurred and damage was caused by the air campaign. The organizations called upon the United States to follow the 1954 Hague Convention and Protocol for the Protection of Cultural Property, enacted in response to the Nazi thefts in Europe during World War II. This protocol explicitly states that looting, theft, and vandalism of cultural property must be prevented during times of armed conflict and during occupation by forces operating in another country. Although the United States isn't a signatory to the protocol, it is widely regarded as international law.

The Bush administration met the efforts of the academic community with encouraging responses. In January, the Defense Department met with scholars, who left the meeting convinced that their concerns had been heard and that the museums and ancient sites of Iraq would be protected. On April 21, 2003 the Washington Times published the result of these meetings. The Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, charged with the effort to rebuild Iraq, sent a memo to the Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) March 26. The directive listed sixteen sites in Baghdad that were crucial to protect, stating, "Coalition forces must secure these facilities in order to prevent looting and the resulting irreplaceable loss of cultural treasures." The Iraq Museum in Baghdad was number two on a list including the Ministries of the Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs. The first institution on the list was the Iraqi Central Bank, which was likewise not protected. Only the last institution on the list was protected--the Ministry of Oil.

While the CFLCC claimed that it had no knowledge of the memo, troops on the ground in Baghdad have since confirmed that they had direct orders to protect the museum. Reuters reports that the "battle of the museum" started about five hundred meters from the museum. The commander of a tank battalion from the Army's Third Infantry Division told Reuters that his troops encountered "stiff resistance" from the museum, including small arms fire and a rocket-propelled grenade. The tank battalion took casualties, and since the museum was "defended" by Iraqis, it lost its protected status. Apparently that loss became permanent because after the actual fighting the tanks and armed soldiers stood by and watched the looting. Museum staff, who had been living at the museum as they did in 1991, risking their lives to protect their charges, were forced to leave when the fighting got heavy. They returned as soon as it was safe but weren't able to protect the museum from the looting. A single U.S. tank responded to their first requests for help, guarding the museum for about thirty minutes on April 12, but then left. Museum personnel were warned off when they approached the tanks again, as the troops reportedly thought they were suicide bombers.

The soldiers of the tank battalion cannot be blamed for their ignorance. They were legitimately in danger any time they ventured out of their rolling fortresses, and they were remarkably few in number for the territory they had to cover. In addition, U.S. soldiers are predominantly young, not very well-educated folk, and clearly not trained to be sensitive to issues concerning cultural heritage.

A report in the Edmonton Journal provides an apt illustration. A young marine stationed near Babylon ventured into a site on a quiet day to take pictures and look for souvenirs. He found a piece of a brick with lines on it; he approached the director of the museum about it, who told him that it was a piece of the south wall of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar dating to 605 BCE. The marine politely asked if he could have it, promising to mount it on his wall, take care of it, and treasure it. The director was afraid to say no and encouraged him to put it back. When the marine didn't, the director approached a commander. The commander referenced the rulebook and assured the director that he would make the marine return it. While the commander acted appropriately, it is obvious from this anecdote that the marine didn't know the rules on looting and had no training concerning the reasons for the rules.

Such things aren't the fault of soldiers in the field, camo-suited grunts in no position to tell the difference between museum, staff and suicide bombers. And yet the question begs: how much could have been averted by just a little forethought, a review of the rules, sensitivity training, or by simply stationing a single tank at each museum, putting up a little barbed wire, and firing warning shots over the heads of looters? Lives would have certainly been at risk, but at minimal risk, given the proven massive technical superiority of our weapons. Certainly the Bush administration thought that the oil ministry and the information ministry were worth the risk; these were protected using exactly these measures.

The military maintains that it isn't the job of soldiers to police the territory, and it is certainly true that the controversially small force used by the United States in this war was spread too thin even to police the five million inhabitants of Baghdad. This past February the Rule of Law Project based in the U.S. Institute of Peace predicted widespread looting in the aftermath of war with Iraq. In a mammoth report suggesting a detailed plan for policing Iraq, it encouraged the creation of a constabulary force of six thousand to enter Baghdad on the heels of U.S. troops. Such a force would have required recruitment and training of SWAT-type police units to serve in semi-combat conditions and would have cost $600 million. But considering that the Pentagon could embed six hundred odd journalists with the troops, this plan doesn't seem too farfetched. It would almost certainly have alleviated the looting of the Iraq Museum and may have also helped to avoid retaliation killings, riots, and the generalized looting that continues even now. Short of this solution, which would have taken time as well as money to implement, around sixty thousand U.S. troops were stationed in Turkey when the Turks refused to allow the United States to open a northern front from their soil. These troops were already in the theater; it seems the height of common sense to have redeployed them to police the country. So why did no one care enough to implement any of these measures?

While the looting was still under way, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to reporters asking about it: "It's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times and you think, my goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?" Setting aside the appalling cultural and historical illiteracy revealed by such a statement, Rumsfeld here seems to be implying that U.S. citizens are too naive or to dense to recognize a footage loop on a newscast. He also said that he could relate to the feelings of the looters, since "freedom's untidy." This attempt to downplay the significance of the looting has been adopted by the president's core right-wing supporters. For example, Rush Limbaugh, a popular voice on the right, echoed the theme on May 2, claiming that "only twenty-nine so-called significant pieces" were taken from the Iraq Museum. On the same day Army General Tommy Franks told reporters that more than one hundred looted items had already been returned, including manuscripts, vases, and a very old bronze bas-relief bull. But perhaps these aren't "significant" pieces to Rush, who apparently believes himself qualified to judge the importance of Near Eastern antiquities.

Rumsfeld's indignant reaction to the outrage over the looting is a telling indication of the administration's thinking. A statement like "freedom's untidy" is patently Bushian in its refusal to acknowledge the complexity of the situation. The Bush administration has built a presidency around a defiant anti-intellectualism. Bush himself clearly likes things--black and white, with us or against us, good and evil--and Bush's advisers expect that the majority of Americans are willing to be limited to such a narrow viewpoint. This is one reason why the administration likes to be at war; it's easier to polarize Americans during wartime, especially when more of them voted for the other guy--a notably intellectual other guy. It's a cultivated ignorance, of course, because many of the president's people are highly educated. Bush's cultural advisers, who resigned in the aftermath of the looting, for instance, could have informed Rumsfeld that there were indeed more than twenty vases in all of Iraq, if anyone had been listening. They weren't listening, of course, in part because concern for a bunch of ancient artifacts from cultures their man can't pronounce is politically counterproductive.

At the same time, the looting may prove positive and profitable to some of Bush's core constituents, including both Christian fundamentalists and wealthy art collectors. In the Bible; Babylon plays a negative role as the center of human ambition, corruption, and degeneracy; the fall of Babylon is depicted with glee and with much emphasis on the material goods and false idols that will be destroyed. Millennialist websites welcomed the notion that this war could be an indication that the end of the world was at hand. Those who believe such things cannot be concerned with the destruction of artifacts of false religions, no matter how old those artifacts are. On the contrary, the destruction of "false idols" can be greeted positively, heralded as part of the newest fall of Babylon, perhaps marking the second coming of Christ. Frighteningly, millennialism isn't really just on the fringes anymore. Studies have shown that the long-term conflict between Israel and Palestine has increased interest in apolcalyptic beliefs, as has the passing of the millennium date mark. Bush, though not clearly believing in millennialism, owes his presidency in part to coziness with the religious right.

Also interested in the lootings was the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), a group recently noted by several international news organizations, including England's Guardian and Telegraph, the Scottish Sunday Herald, and the Islamic news organization Al-Jazeera. A group of art collectors and lawyers formed just two years ago, the ACCP has been critical of restrictions posed on collectors by the National Stolen Property Act. One of the leaders of the ACCP is William Pearlstein, a lawyer who characterized Iraq's cultural property laws under Hussein as "retentionist." According to an April 27, 2003, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, Pearlstein has argued on behalf of Frederick Schultz, described as an expert on antiquities who also smuggled stolen artifacts and created false provenances for the items. The ACCP, in closed meetings with the Bush administration before the war, reportedly expressed interest in being involved in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, particularly to create an environment where previously protected Iraqi antiquities might be certified as exports.

Very wealthy collectors are perhaps the only ones who will benefit from the looting of Iraq's antiquities, since they are the only ones who might have the resources to provide a market for these objects. In the absence of any true concern for Iraq's cultural heritage, and in an administration that clearly has an eye to rewarding the faithful, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, it wouldn't be the first time greed was a motivating factor in Bush's policy.

Whatever the role of the ACCP in influencing the administration, one conclusion is certain. In allowing the destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage, Bush's advisers were, at best, negligent ill making no real provisions for policing Iraq after the war. At worst, the Bush administration was tacitly approving of the destruction. Objects which survived the Mongol sack of Baghdad in the twelfth century fell victim to the political realities of the twenty-first. Whether motivated by greed, anti-intellectualism, or ties to the religious right, Bush's people obviously saw no political advantage in protecting the treasures of Iraq; indeed, perhaps it served them better to appeal to millennialism and wealthy art collectors by allowing the newest sack of Babylon. As Boris Johnson expressed in the April 17, 2003, Telegraph, current Iraqi policy about historical artifacts is "about as retentionist as a burst paper bag."

Almira Poudrier holds an M.A. in Greek from the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and a Ph.D. in Classics from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is currently a lecturer of Latin at Arizona State University and lives in Phoenix.

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