|Baghdad Museum Looted
New York Times
April 12 http://tinyurl.com/9e80
BAGHDAD, 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 50,000 artifacts
carried away by looters.
The full extent of the disaster that befell the museum only came to light
today, after three days of frenzied looting that swept much of the capital.
As fires in a dozen government ministries and agencies began to burn out,
and as some looters tired of pillaging in the 90-degree heat of the Iraqi
spring, 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 like 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 ubiquitous 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 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 troops, 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 to 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 civilization" 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 that 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 participated in the excavation of some of the
country's 10,000 sites, Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, said he had gone into
the street of the Karkh district, a short distance from the eastern bank of
the Tigris, at 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
in boxes. Looters stuffed their pockets with smaller items.
Mr. Muhammad said he 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. This 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."
He spoke with deep bitterness against 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 targeted 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 troops loyal to Mr. Hussein.
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."