June 8, 2007
The Guardian

Iraq's Four-year Looting Frenzy

British and American collusion in the pillaging of Iraq's heritage is a scandal that will outlive any passing conflict

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. . . .


Robert Fisk, "A Civilisation Torn to Pieces," Independent, April 13, 2003

Humberto Marquez, "Iraq Invasion 'Biggest Cultural Disaster Since 1258' ," Inter Press Service, February 16, 2005

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