Skip to comments.Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure
Posted on 04/13/2003 12:28:39 AM PDT by JohnHuang2
AGHDAD, Iraq, April 12 The National Museum of Iraq recorded a history of civilizations that began to flourish in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia more than 7,000 years ago. But once American troops entered Baghdad in sufficient force to topple Saddam Hussein's government this week, it took only 48 hours for the museum to be destroyed, with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters.
The full extent of the disaster that befell the museum came to light only today, as the frenzied looting that swept much of the capital over the previous three days began to ebb.
As fires in a dozen government ministries and agencies began to burn out, and as looters tired of pillaging in the 90-degree heat, museum officials reached the hotels where foreign journalists were staying along the eastern bank of the Tigris River. They brought word of what is likely to be reckoned as one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history.
A full accounting of what has been lost may take weeks or months. The museum had been closed during much of the 1990's, and as with many Iraqi institutions, its operations were cloaked in secrecy under Mr. Hussein.
So what officials told journalists today may have to be adjusted as a fuller picture comes to light. It remains unclear whether some of the museum's priceless gold, silver and copper antiquities, some of its ancient stone and ceramics and perhaps some of its fabled bronzes and gold-overlaid ivory, had been locked away for safekeeping elsewhere before the looting, or seized for private display in one of Mr. Hussein's myriad palaces.
What was beyond contest today was that the 28 galleries of the museum and vaults with huge steel doors guarding storage chambers that descend floor after floor into unlighted darkness had been completely ransacked.
Officials with crumpled spirits fought back tears and anger at American troops, as they ran down an inventory of the most storied items that they said had been carried away by the thousands of looters who poured into the museum after daybreak on Thursday and remained until dusk on Friday, with only one intervention by American forces, lasting about half an hour, at lunchtime on Thursday.
Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.
As examples of what was gone, the officials cited a solid gold harp from the Sumerian era, which began about 3360 B.C. and started to crumble about 2000 B.C. Another item on their list of looted antiquities was a sculptured head of a woman from Uruk, one of the great Sumerian cities, dating from about the same era, and a collection of gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings, also from the Sumerian dynasties and also at least 4,000 years old.
But an item-by-item inventory of the most valued pieces carried away by the looters hardly seemed to capture the magnitude of what had occurred. More powerful, in its way, was the action of one museum official in hurrying away through the piles of smashed ceramics and torn books and burned-out torches of rags soaked in gasoline that littered the museum's corridors to find the glossy catalog of an exhibition of "Silk Road Civilizations" that was held in Japan's ancient capital of Nara in 1988.
Turning to 50 pages of items lent by the Iraqi museum for the exhibition, he said none of the antiquities pictured remained after the looting. They included ancient stone carvings of bulls and kings and princesses; copper shoes and cuneiform tablets; tapestry fragments and ivory figurines of goddesses and women and Nubian porters; friezes of soldiers and ancient seals and tablets on geometry; and ceramic jars and urns and bowls, all dating back at least 2,000 years, some more than 5,000 years.
"All gone, all gone," he said. "All gone in two days."
An Iraqi archaeologist who has taken part in the excavation of some of the country's 10,000 sites, Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, said he went into the street in the Karkh district, a short distance from the eastern bank of the Tigris, about 1 p.m. on Thursday to find American troops to quell the looting. By that time, he and other museum officials said, the several acres of museum grounds were overrun by thousands of men, women and children, many of them armed with rifles, pistols, axes, knives and clubs, as well as pieces of metal torn from the suspensions of wrecked cars. The crowd was storming out of the complex carrying antiquities on hand carts, bicycles and wheelbarrows and in boxes. Looters stuffed their pockets with smaller items.
Mr. Muhammad said that he had found an American Abrams tank in Museum Square, about 300 yards away, and that five marines had followed him back into the museum and opened fire above the looters' heads. That drove several thousand of the marauders out of the museum complex in minutes, he said, but when the tank crewmen left about 30 minutes later, the looters returned.
"I asked them to bring their tank inside the museum grounds," he said. "But they refused and left. About half an hour later, the looters were back, and they threatened to kill me, or to tell the Americans that I am a spy for Saddam Hussein's intelligence, so that the Americans would kill me. So I was frightened, and I went home."
Mohsen Hassan, a 56-year-old deputy curator, returned to the museum on Saturday afternoon after visiting military commanders a mile away at the Palestine Hotel, with a request that American troops be placed in the museum to protect the building and items left by the looters in the vaults. Mr. Hassan said the American officers had given him no assurances that they would guard the museum around the clock, but other American commanders announced later in the day that joint patrols with unarmed Iraqi police units would begin as early as Sunday in an attempt to prevent further looting.
Mr. Hassan, who said he had spent 34 years helping to develop the museum's collection, described watching as men took sledgehammers to locked glass display cases and in some instances fired rifles and pistols to break the locks.
He said that many of the looters appeared to be from the impoverished districts of the city where anger at Mr. Hussein ran at its strongest, but that others were middle-class people who appeared to know exactly what they were looking for.
"Did some of them know the value of what they took?" he said. "Absolutely, they did. They knew what the most valued pieces in our collection were."
Mr. Muhammad spoke with deep bitterness toward the Americans, as have many Iraqis who have watched looting that began with attacks on government agencies and the palaces and villas of Mr. Hussein, his family and his inner circle broaden into a tidal wave of looting that struck just about every government institution, even ministries dealing with issues like higher education, trade and agriculture, and hospitals.
American troops have intervened only sporadically, as they did on Friday to halt a crowd of men and boys who were raiding an armory at the edge of the Republican Palace presidential compound and taking brand-new Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
American commanders have said they lack the troops to curb the looting while their focus remains on the battles across Baghdad that are necessary to mop up pockets of resistance from paramilitary forces loyal to Mr. Hussein.
As reporters returned from the national museum to their hotels beside the Tigris tonight, marines guarding the hotels were caught in a heavy firefight with Iraqis across the river, and the neighborhoods erupted with tank and heavy machine-gun fire. Western television cameramen who went onto the embankment beside the Palestine Hotel to film the battle were pulled from danger by helmeted marines who dragged them down behind concrete parapets and waved to reporters on the hotel's upper balconies to get down.
Mr. Muhammad, the archaeologist, directed much of his anger at President Bush. "A country's identity, its value and civilization resides in its history," he said. "If a country's civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush. Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a humiliation."
That is exactly what crossed my mind in terms of the loss. Only it would be as if the Egyptians burned it themselves.
"And, in the history books, a thousand years in the future, it will be noted: "But the Americans guarded the oil ministry 24 hours a day, not wanting to stop the flow of petroleum products to the West."
Yes, it will reverberate for 1000 years that we failed to act. The reason won't matter. It did not take a rocket scientist to anticipate the looting of this museum and prepare for it. Rummy and Myers have lost some of their luster in my mind and it grieves me to say that because I have been in total support of this war. I don't want to see Rummy's face for a while. This is bad.
True. But it is also true that occupying force is responsible to establish order and prevent exactly such events. From the article it seems that it was provided for 30 minutes and it did have effect.
1907 Hague Convention
The authority of the legitimate power having actually passed into the hands of the occupant, the latter shall take all steps in his power to re-establish and insure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.
The property of the communes, that of religious, charitable, and educational institutions, and those of arts and science, even when State property, shall be treated as private property. All seizure of, and destruction, or intentional damage done to such institutions, to historical monuments, works of art or science, is prohibited, and should be made the subject of proceedings.
And then there is this.
Additionally, many "treasures" were already plundered by other nation's museums centuries ago.
This is more fodder for the Blame America First crowd.
I also heard that the employees of the museum had done the looting themselves.
I completely disagree. Machinery can be replaced, 7000 years worth of antiquities cannot.
That makes sense. It's people who knew the value and had the connections who actually took the stuff.
Today a revolution is going on in Iraq that is every bit as crucial to the success of free Iraq as our tanks and jets. This revolution is being carried out in government buildings and the homes of the wealthy, who are rightly seen as being toadys and collaborators of Saddam.
The museum is just "collateral damage" in this revolution of rage against symbols of Saddam's kleptocracy. The artifacts will make it back to collections, don't fear.
Anyway, weep for the mothers brothers and sisters and fathers of the million murdered by Saddam, not fat sleek Saddamite museum directors.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.