Rene – In Iraq's Four-Year Looting Frenzy, The Allies Have Become The Vandals

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In Iraq’s Four-Year Looting Frenzy, The Allies Have Become The Vandals
British and American Collusion In The Pillaging of Iraq’s Heritage Is A
Scandal That Will Outlive Any Passing Conflict
Published on Friday, June 8, 2007 by The Guardian/UK
by Simon Jenkins
Fly into the American air base of Tallil outside Nasiriya in central
Iraq and the flight path is over the great ziggurat of Ur, reputedly
the earliest city on earth. Seen from the base in the desert haze or
the sand-filled gloom of dusk, the structure is indistinguishable from
the mounds of fuel dumps, stores and hangars. Ur is safe within the
base compound. But its walls are pockmarked with wartime shrapnel and a
blockhouse is being built over an adjacent archaeological site. When
the head of Iraq’s supposedly sovereign board of antiquities and
heritage, Abbas al-Hussaini, tried to inspect the site recently, the
Americans refused him access to his own most important monument.
Yesterday Hussaini reported to the British Museum on his struggles to
protect his work in a state of anarchy. It was a heart breaking
presentation. Under Saddam you were likely to be tortured and shot if
you let someone steal an antiquity; in today’s Iraq you are likely to
be tortured and shot if you don’t. The tragic fate of the national
museum in Baghdad in April 2003 was as if federal troops had invaded
New York city, sacked the police and told the criminal community that
the Metropolitan was at their disposal. The local tank commander was
told specifically not to protect the museum for a full two weeks after
the invasion. Even the Nazis protected the Louvre.
When I visited the museum six months later, its then director, Donny
George, proudly showed me the best he was making of a bad job. He was
about to reopen, albeit with half his most important objects stolen.
The pro-war lobby had stopped pretending that the looting was nothing
to do with the Americans, who were shamefacedly helping retrieve stolen
objects under the dynamic US colonel, Michael Bogdanos (author of a
book on the subject). The vigorous Italian cultural envoy to the
coalition, Mario Bondioli-Osio, was giving generously for restoration.
The beautiful Warka vase, carved in 3000BC, was recovered though
smashed into 14 pieces. The exquisite Lyre of Ur, the world’s most
ancient musical instrument, was found badly damaged. Clerics in Sadr
City were ingeniously asked to tell wives to refuse to sleep with their
husbands if looted objects were not returned, with some success.
Nothing could be done about the fire-gutted national library and the
loss of five centuries of Ottoman records (and works by Piccasso and
Miro). But the message of winning hearts and minds seemed to have got
Today the picture is transformed. Donny George fled for his life last
August after death threats. The national museum is not open but shut.
Nor is it just shut. Its doors are bricked up, it is surrounded by
concrete walls and its exhibits are sandbagged. Even the staff cannot
get inside. There is no prospect of reopening.
Hussaini confirmed a report two years ago by John Curtis, of the
British Museum, on America’s conversion of Nebuchadnezzar’s great city
of Babylon into the hanging gardens of Halliburton. This meant a
150-hectare camp for 2,000 troops. In the process the 2,500-year-old
brick pavement to the Ishtar Gate was smashed by tanks and the gate
itself damaged. The archaeology-rich subsoil was bulldozed to fill
sandbags, and large areas covered in compacted gravel for helipads and
car parks. Babylon is being rendered archaeologically barren.
Meanwhile the courtyard of the 10th-century caravanserai of Khan
al-Raba was used by the Americans for exploding captured insurgent
weapons. One blast demolished the ancient roofs and felled many of the
walls. The place is now a ruin.
Outside the capital some 10,000 sites of incomparable importance to the
history of western civilisation, barely 20% yet excavated, are being
looted as systematically as was the museum in 2003. When George tried
to remove vulnerable carvings from the ancient city of Umma to Baghdad,
he found gangs of looters already in place with bulldozers, dump trucks
and AK47s.
Hussaini showed one site after another lost to archaeology in a
four-year `looting frenzy’. The remains of the 2000BC cities of Isin
and Shurnpak appear to have vanished: pictures show them replaced by a
desert of badger holes created by an army of some 300 looters. Castles,
ziggurats, deserted cities, ancient minarets and mosques have gone or
are going. Hussaini has 11 teams combing the country engaged in rescue
work, mostly collecting detritus left by looters. His small force of
site guards is no match for heavily armed looters, able to shift
objects to eager European and American dealers in days.
Most ominous is a message reputedly put out from Moqtada al-Sadr’s
office, that while Muslim heritage should be respected, pre-Muslim
relics were up for grabs. As George said before his flight, his
successors might be `only interested in Islamic sites and not Iraq’s
earlier heritage’. While Hussaini is clearly devoted to all Iraq’s
history, the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s pre-Muslim Bamiyan
Buddhas is in every mind.
Despite Sadr’s apparent preference, sectarian militias are pursuing an
orgy of destruction of Muslim sites. Apart from the high-profile
bombings of some of the loveliest surviving mosques in the Arab world,
radical groups opposed to all shrines have begun blasting 10th- and
11th-century structures, irrespective of Sunni or Shia origin. Eighteen
ancient shrines have been lost, 10 in Kirkuk and the south in the past
month alone. The great monument and souk at Kifel, north of Najaf –
reputedly the tomb of Ezekiel and once guarded by Iraqi Jews (mostly
driven into exile by the occupation) – have been all but destroyed.
It is abundantly clear that the Americans and British are not
protecting Iraq’s historic sites. All foreign archaeologists have had
to leave. Troops are doing nothing to prevent the `farming’ of known
antiquities. This is in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention
that an occupying army should `use all means within its power’ to guard
the cultural heritage of a defeated state.
Shortly after the invasion, the British minister Tessa Jowell won
plaudits for `pledging’ £5m to protect Iraq’s antiquities. I can find
no one who can tell me where, how or whether this money has been spent.
It appears to have been pure spin. Only the British Museum and the
British School of Archaeology in Iraq have kept the flag flying. The
latter’s grant has just been cut, presumably to pay for the Olympics
As long as Britain and America remain in denial over the anarchy they
have created in Iraq, they clearly feel they must deny its devastating
side-effects. Two million refugees now camping in Jordan and Syria are
ignored, since life in Iraq is supposed to be `better than before’.
Likewise dozens of Iraqis working for the British and thus facing death
threats are denied asylum. To grant it would mean the former defence
and now home secretary, the bullish John Reid, admitting he was wrong.
They will die before he does that.
Though I opposed the invasion I assumed that its outcome would at least
be a more civilised environment. Yet Iraq’s people are being murdered
in droves for want of order. Authority has collapsed. That western
civilisation should have been born in so benighted a country as Iraq
may seem bad luck. But only now is that birth being refused all
guardianship, in defiance of international law. If this is Tony Blair’s
`values war’, then language has lost all meaning. British collusion in
such destruction is a scandal that will outlive any passing conflict.
And we had the cheek to call the Taliban vandals.