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What Is Being Done to Save Iraq's National Heritage

Given the coverage of the war in the nation's press, it is hard not to be aware of the large-scale looting and destruction of priceless artifacts in Iraq's Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad. The institution's collections documented the Babylonian, Sumerian, Assyrian, and Islamic civilizations. Last Sunday (13 April 2003) for example, a front-page story and poignant photo in the Washington Post showed a tearful Nabhal Amin, the museum's deputy director, crying as she surveyed the destruction of an estimated 170,000 artifacts. The museum's collection contained objects dating back thousands of years and was worth billions of dollars in monetary terms, but was priceless to scholars of Mesopotamia and Near Eastern antiquity. The card catalog documenting the collection was also destroyed.

The National Coalition for History (NCH) has learned that the loss caused by the frenzy of looting extends far beyond what was initially reported. First it was the antiquities museum, then came word that the National Library that housed precious books, had been ransacked, gutted, set on fire, and left a smoldering shell. Then word that the Iraq historical archives building -- the "House of Wisdom" -- the repository for a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq as well as the documentary evidence of the country's more recent history, was also ablaze. Eyewitnesses reported flames shooting 200 feet in the air with charred handwritten letters and papers raining down on streets. Finally, word came that the library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment was burning out of control.

For days, near universal scorn poured down on Pentagon officials who, according to press accounts were apparently "specifically warned" months ago about the need to protect Iraqi heritage sites including the Museum of Antiquities. Defense department officials retorted, that Coalition troops were too occupied by combat to intervene, and furthermore, senior Pentagon officials stated that the military had never promised that the buildings would be safeguarded though they were included on the American military's "no-target list" in response to scholars' warnings. General Richard Myers, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later stated that protection of the museum had been considered but it was assigned less importance than ongoing combat operations; that the military had acted first to secure oil wells, dams, and other critical sites ahead of the troops' main advance, and that once in the city, Coalition forces placed a priority on securing the oil ministry offices to keep looters there at bay.

In his statement to reporters, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld characterized the loss merely as "the price of liberation" and blamed the destruction of the museum on "the chaos that ensures when you go from a dictatorship to a new order...we didn't allow it. It happened and it's unfortunate." Later, during a press conference, Secretary of State Colin Powell defended the administration's priority decisions and stated that "The United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general, but this museum in particular." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/2/hi/entertainment/2947251.stm). During a subsequent Pentagon briefing, Secretary Rumsfeld also declared that the US had begun that process and was offering rewards for those who return plundered items or helped in recovering them.

According to one Iraqi museum official though, had five American soldiers posted at the door of the antiquities museum, "everything would have been fine." However, some evidence is beginning to emerge that some pillaging of the museum may have been conducted prior to the rampaging mob by trained antiquities thieves. Their actions, along with later ransacking of the building collectively resulted in the theft and destruction.

American heritage officials speculate that a full accounting of what was lost -- not just at the museum but at the library and archives as well -- will take months. The status of other regional Iraqi cultural institutions in other parts of Bagdad and in other cities now occupied by Coalition forces remains unknown. Concerns are very real, as during the Gulf War nine of Iraq's 13 regional museums were ransacked; items in their collections later showed up on the international art market.

As Pentagon officials defended American military actions before the press, the scholarly community throughout the world began to respond. Most expressed outrage at the seeming "inaction" by Coalition forces. On 14 April, over 250 scholars petitioned the United Nations urging measures be implemented for the safeguarding of Iraqi cultural heritage (http://users.ox.ac.uk/~wolf0126/petition.html). (Individuals and organizations that wish to add their names and institutional affiliation may do so by sending a message to: mesop2003@yahoo.com.)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also quickly acted. UNESCO called an emergency meeting in Paris to begin to assess the damage and attempt to inventory missing or destroyed antiquities. Interpol was also alerted and requested to enforce the 1970 UNESCO Convention strictures prohibiting the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Several international non-governmental bodies such as the International Council of Museums (ICOM) issued statements warning art dealers, auction houses, collectors, and museums against acquisition of objects that belong to the Iraqi heritage (see http:www.icom.museum).

In the United States, on 16 April, representatives of 16 heritage organizations, including representatives of the archaeological, museum, library, archival, and history communities came together at a hastily called special meeting of an expanded Heritage Emergency National Task Force (a loose coalition of many major national heritage organizations in the United States) at the offices of the American Association of Museums to discuss what united actions the American heritage community should take. During the meeting, a representative of one scholarly organization stated that their members were "outraged" and wanted their boards of directors to pass strongly worded statements, fixing blame and getting to the heart of culpability. A letter by Martin E. Sullivan tendering his resignation as Chair of the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property was also circulated. In that letter, Sullivan stated that in his view the tragedy could have been prevented but was not, "due to our nation's inaction."

During a roundtable discussion, it became clear that there were a lot of unknowns. For example, there was no clear indication of the true extent of the damage to museums, archives, and other cultural institutions from voices of heritage professionals inside Iraq. The group believed that more information needed to be gathered and that it presently was impossible to determine how best to provide assistance. To rectify that situation, a recommended course of action was outlined and agreed to (http://aam-us.org/files/iraqmeeting.cfm).

First, the group recognized the need to issue public calls for the "immediate protection of all forms of heritage in Iraq" by Coalition forces.

Second, there is a need to "communicate with cultural heritage professionals in Iraq to obtain a list of needs and priorities." The group felt that this type of interaction with Iraqi colleagues was needed before American organizations could be of immediate and continuing assistance. To that end, a team of specialists representing various areas of heritage expertise may be assembled and sent to Iraq to gather information and conduct a needs assessment in conjunction with Iraqi heritage professionals. Several representatives present at the meeting also reported that their organizations had already started to compile Internet-based catalogues of stolen/missing artifacts from museums that would be of use to Customs and other policing officials in reclaiming stolen goods.

Third, there needs to be a "call for the inclusion of cultural heritage needs in the U.S. Agency for International Development's list of reconstruction activities for Iraq." (see http://www.usaid.gov/iraq/). The USIA is one such governmental agency that provides humanitarian and reconstruction assistance and mitigates the impact of emergency situations.

Fourth, the group recognized that there was a need to identify "private, business, and government funding to support the cultural heritage reconstruction work in Iraq." To that end, the Getty Conservation Institute has already pledged assistance (organizations wishing to participate in this funding effort should contact the AAM at (202) 289-1818.

The Task Force urged heritage organizations throughout the country to issue statements reflecting these four consensus points.

Gustavo Araoz, representing the United States Committee, International Council on Monuments and Sites, (US/ICOMOS) circulated a draft letter to President Bush signed by over twenty organizations. The letter included several of the action points agreed to by these organizations. The US/ICOMOS letter called for: 1) immediate protection of heritage sites including "historic sites, historic urban districts, cultural landscapes, buildings of unusual aesthetic values, archeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other repositories of cultural property and human memory;" 2) immediate protection of Iraqi professionals and scholars who work in these places and thereby enable them to carry out their stewardship duties; 3) implementation of the UNESCO Convention for illegal traffic of stolen goods; and 4) the US government needs to insure that funds destined for post-war recovery and reconstruction will provide sufficient funds for the field of cultural resources. On behalf of the American historical/archival professions, the National Coalition for History became a signatory to this letter. The letter is posted on the webpage of the Archaeological Institute of America (http://www.archaeological.org) and should also be soon be available on the USICOMOS webpage (http://www.icomos.org/usicomos) as well as the NCH webpage (http:www2.h-net.msu.edu/~nch).

In the very near future the National Coalition for History will also be issuing a model "Statement" on the Iraq heritage crisis for historical and archival organizations to consider using as the basis for their own organizational statements. Organizations wishing a copy may contact the NCH at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.