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The Looting of Iraq Goes On

It is two months since we learned of the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The news reports at the time were clear and consistent, but it now appears that they exaggerated the scope of the damage. Many of us reacted passionately to the news, writing editorials and letters expressing our sorrow and anger. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I can only say that perhaps we should have realized we were dealing with preliminary reports. Unfortunately, there are now voices in the media suggesting that the damage was so slight that we should all apologize and forget about the whole thing. Some have even gone as afar as to suggest that the whole affair was fabricated for domestic political or ideological reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let us look at the facts. Unbeknownst to us, most of the museum holdings had been placed into storage before the war. They survived. But the devastation is still staggering: thousands of items are missing, including about 30 of the most important Mesopotamian antiquities from the museum. We rejoice at the latest news that the famous Warka vase has been returned, but there are still thousands of items missing. It will take some time to establish the exact figure; a source is the US Customs team working along with the museum staff on the inventory reports that the current estimate is six thousand items. Dr. Nawalla Al-Mutawalli, the director of the Iraq Museum, addressing a conference in Vienna last week provided an estimate of approximately ten thousand. Her words were also reported by the press. This is much less than was initially reported, but it is still a catastrophe. If even a thousand paintings and sculptures were stolen from the National Gallery in Washington, it would be considered a national disaster.

The Iraqi museum building was ransacked, records strewn about, almost all equipment and furniture looted, the doors destroyed. Other museums and libraries in the country were ravaged, as were most of the universities, taking a terrible toll on the cultural heritage of Iraq. And this was not completely unexpected. A number of people had predicted that such events might take place. For example, on January 24, 2003, the Boston Globe cited museum director Dr. Al-Mutawalli as saying: “I’m frightened of the war. But I'm really frightened about the looting and the damage that might occur.”

Scholars were given reassurances that cultural sites in Iraq would be protected. Of course, wars are always unpredictable. In April, when we reacted so strongly to news of damage to the museum, we did not know that there had been fighting on the museum grounds, and a sniper had lodged himself in one of the storage rooms. But even knowing this, it is understandable that so many of us were disturbed to learn that no efforts were made to protect the museum until after the looting was over.

No one is served by understating the extent of the damage or by politicizing the issue. U.S. and Iraqi authorities are now hard at work compiling inventories, making repairs, and planning for the reconstitution of the Antiquities Service. This work is being hindered by media reports that question the integrity of members of the museum staff. These are serious accusations that should not be made lightly; no substantiation of these claims has been provided to date, and it is simply irresponsible to repeat them as if they were facts. Archaeologists who have worked with these people have nothing but the highest regard for the leaders of the museum, and they must be allowed to proceed with their recovery work for the present.

The damage to the museums and libraries of Iraq is done. But there is another cultural tragedy taking place at this very moment: the massive looting of Iraq¹s archaeological sites. This has been reported by Donny George of the Iraq Museum, and corroborated by a National Geographic team of scholars and photographers that recently visited a number of sites. The team didn’t simply witness devastation after the fact: they encountered active looting.

These archaeological sites are the remains of some of the earliest cities in the world. The National Geographic team described certain sites, post-looting, as looking like Swiss cheese. One of the smaller ones is essentially gone. The looters haul out thousands of items, including highly desirable figurines, cylinder seals, and inscribed cuneiform tablets. In the process, they crush countless other objects and destroy the houses, palaces, or temples in which these precious clues to our common past were located.

Some of these sites were already damaged by looting before the war. Now they are being ravaged. U.S. forces have made an effort to stop this, but they have other duties to perform and other priorities, including serious security issues. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the looting be stopped if it is not to do permanent, irreparable damage. At last report, Donny George of the Iraq Museum and Ambassador Ambassador Pietro Cordone, Senior Advisor for Culture of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), have been working together to organize the protection of sites and their work needs urgent support.

The destruction of archaeological sites is in some ways more dismaying than the looting of museum holdings. Museum collections are documented; archaeological sites are not. They are places of discovery, where the past is revealed to us. Ripping artifacts out of their context destroys our ability to interpret them to learn what they can tell us about our own ancient cultural beginnings.

This looting, and the concomitant destruction of ancient towns and cities, is fueled by promise of profits from the antiquities trade. If there were no buyers for these goods, there would be little looting. Congress is currently considering legislation that would ban the sale of Iraqi antiquities that were removed from the country after 1990. Everyone concerned about the looting should express their support for the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 2009), introduced by Representatives Phil English (R-PA) and Jim Leach (R-IA). Our British allies have just passed a similar law.