|Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure|
|By John F. Burns, New York Times, 2003-04-12|
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."
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