Joe Conason's Journal

Was it coincidence that troops were sent to defend the Oil Ministry and not the National Museum of Antiquities?

Published April 14, 2003 7:36PM (EDT)

Watching Donald Rumsfeld, I can understand why reporters might be reluctant to ask him hard questions. He rants, he mocks, he filibusters, and whenever necessary, he misleads. Worse, he sounds forthright when he is being most evasive. And he will gladly punish reporters who are too persistent or too far off-message, for taking the trouble to do their job.

Yesterday, Tim Russert could hardly avoid asking Rumsfeld about U.S. responsibility for conditions in Iraq. The "Meet the Press" host didn't mention the Hague or the Geneva Conventions -- both require an invading power to maintain civil order, protect citizens and property, and so on. But Russert did wonder aloud how the U.S. had permitted the looting and destruction of the National Museum of Antiquities' irreplaceable, priceless art and artifacts -- the heritage of all humanity, as the Syrian ambassador later pointed out -- and that was enough to enrage Rummy.

"How did we allow that museum to be looted?" Russert wondered.

"How did we allow?" mimicked the defense secretary. "Now, that's really a wonderful, amazing statement."

He cut off any further questioning and erupted with his usual material: "But we didn't allow it. It happened ... Bad things do happen in life and people do loot ... It's a shame when it happens." He even offered a little happy talk in the midst of his rant: "I'll bet you anything that if they -- when order is restored, and we have a more permissive environment, that there will be opportunities to ask people to return some of those things that were taken. We've already found people returning supplies to hospitals ... And it isn't something that someone allows or doesn't allow. It's something that happens."

Russert tried to ask whether it was true, as the museum director has charged, that her plea for U.S. military protection had been spurned. Rummy said he didn't know, and obviously could not care less. So ended that discussion.

What Russert ought to have asked was this: If looting is something that just happens, why did it happen in some places and not others? Was it mere coincidence that troops were sent to defend the Oil Ministry and almost nothing else? Why are there still no troops protecting what's left of the museum, and the hospitals, and the other government ministries?

When I first heard that Iraqis were saying on the radio that only the Oil Ministry was under guard, I couldn't quite believe it. How could anyone possibly be that stupid? But it's apparently true.

Even if all Rumsfeld knows is what he reads in the Washington Post, he would have been aware of that peculiar situation no later than last Thursday morning, when this sentence appeared in an AP dispatch about the chaos in Baghdad: "US troops occupied the Oil Ministry." Competent, hard-charging executive that Rummy is, I suspect he knew about it much earlier than that. Somebody ordered those soldiers to guard the oil data.
[12:46 p.m. PDT, April 14, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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