The end of civilization

The sacking of Iraq's museums is like a "lobotomy" of an entire culture, say art experts. And they warned the Pentagon repeatedly of this potential catastrophe months before the war.

Published April 17, 2003 11:10PM (EDT)

On Jan. 24 at the Pentagon, a small group of accomplished archaeologists and art curators met with Joseph Collins, who reports directly to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and four other Pentagon officials to talk about how the U.S. military could protect Iraq's cultural and archaeological sites from damage and destruction during the impending war in that country. McGuire Gibson, a professor at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, gave the officials a list of 5,000 cultural and archaeological sites. First on the list: the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

Gibson recalls he talked to the group about the importance of safeguarding the museum from bomb damage -- and from looting after the military conflict ended. "I pointed to the museum's location on a map of Baghdad and said: 'It's right here,'" he recalled in an interview. "I asked them to make assurances that they'd make efforts to prevent looting and they said they would. I thought we had assurances, but they didn't pan out."

On April 10, a day after Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed and Baghdad was in the hands of U.S. military forces, the National Museum of Iraq was ransacked. In a matter of hours, thousands of Iraqis, some thought to be working for art dealers, clambered into the museum that had been closed to the public for years. After two days of looting, almost all of the museum's 170,000 artifacts were either stolen or damaged. Ancient vases were smashed. Statues were beheaded. In the museum's collection were items from Ur and Uruk, the first city-states, settled around 4000 B.C., including art, jewelry and clay tablets containing cuneiform, considered to be the first examples of writing. The museum also housed giant alabaster and limestone carvings taken from palaces of ancient kings.

"It's catastrophic," says Gibson, who is also head of the American Association for Research in Baghdad, a consortium of about 30 U.S. museums and universities. "It's a lot like a lobotomy. The deep memory of an entire culture, a culture that has continued for thousands of years, has been removed. There was 5,000 years of written records, even Egyptian records don't go back that far. It's an incredible crime."

In the aftermath of a looting spree that stripped museums in Baghdad and Mosul, left the National Library a smoldering ruin and turned thousands of ancient Qurans at the Ministry for Religious Affairs to ashes, archaeologists and museum curators from around the world are racing today to assess the damage and, where possible, to recover what has not been destroyed. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has called an emergency meeting Thursday in Paris to review the disaster. Even the U.S. government has pledged an aggressive effort to help recover Iraq's stolen historical treasures.

Gibson, who will attend the UNESCO meeting, and other experts in archaeology and ancient art are hardly mollified by that pledge. In a series of interviews with Salon, they offered a detailed account of warnings given to U.S. war planners beginning last fall, and continuing up to the days before the war -- warnings which were all but ignored.

"It's extraordinary," says Joan Aruz, curator in charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "It's of the utmost significance, not only for the cultural heritage of Iraq, but also for the rest of the world. The museum contained the greatest work of art created in the first cities. The loss is just outstanding. I haven't gotten over the shock."

Aruz, who's in charge of the Met's upcoming exhibition about ancient Iraq, says one of her favorite pieces in the museum's collection is a figure of a man with a beard referred to as "The Priest King." Another is a carved face of a sensitive-looking young woman. The combined value of the artifacts could be in the billions of dollars.

Some archaeological and art experts think that the sack of Baghdad may be a result of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's decision not commit more ground forces. Instead, he opted for a "rolling start" invasion where troops would be deployed to Iraq as needed. Other generals, including Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, criticized Rumsfeld's decision. One unnamed general even called it a "war on the cheap."

The U.S. and Britain deployed almost 300,000 troops to the Persian Gulf region. In contrast, during the Operation Desert Storm in 1991, allied forces numbered closer to 500,000. "Now, we're seeing the consequences of that decision," says Scott Silliman, who was the senior attorney for the U.S. Air Force's Tactical Air Command during the first Gulf War. Silliman worked with archaeologists at that time to make sure the Air Force took precautions not to destroy or harm Iraq's cultural and ancient sites.

Coalition forces are trying to restore civil order in Baghdad, a city of 4.5 million, and the looting has almost ended. However, the pandemonium and destruction that occurred have cost the Bush administration credibility and trust in Iraq and across the Arab world. Silliman, who's now a law professor at Duke University and executive director of the Center for Law, Ethics and National Security, says the coalition forces may have violated the Fourth Geneva Convention, which calls for an occupying force to protect cultural property. Even if the coalition forces didn't intentionally breach the Geneva Conventions, he says, "the effect [of the looting] will be more in world opinion, than in legal sanctions."

After the first reports of looting at Iraq's museums -- and the first questions were raised about the failure of U.S. forces to intervene -- Rumsfeld's initial comments signaled that the U.S. didn't think that protection of antiquities and art was a priority. At a news conference last Friday, he blamed press coverage for inflating the problem. "The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over," he said, "and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, 'My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?'"

That outraged archaeologists, historians and others around the world. The Archaeological Institute of America, a Boston-based group with 9,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, had contacted government agencies as far as back as January about the danger of looting of Iraqs cultural sites. Institute President Jane Waldbaum said she was outraged first by the unchecked looting, and then by Rumsfeld's response. "Donald Rumsfeld in his speech basically shrugged and said, 'Boys will be boys. What's a little looting?'" she said. "Freedom is messy, but freedom doesn't mean you have the freedom to commit crimes. This loss is almost immeasurable."

In the past few days, the U.S. Central Command in Qatar has tried softening Rumsfeld's off-the-cuff remarks. "I don't think anyone anticipated the riches of Iraq would be looted by the Iraqi people," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Tuesday. In fact, however, the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House had been warned repeatedly, for months.

On Oct. 15, Ashton Hawkins, president of the American Council for Cultural Policy, a not-for-profit group formed to promote issues relating to art collecting, sent a letter to Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asking what steps the government and the military were taking to secure Iraq's antiquities. Copies of the letter were also sent to various officials in the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies.

Hawkins, a former general counsel at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, received no response.

Then in November, Hawkins and Maxwell L. Anderson, president of the American Association of Museum Art Directors and director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post. In the piece published Nov. 29, they reiterated the points made in the earlier letter and said that the U.S. government and the military should prepare plans to protect Iraq's cultural and archaeological sites.

"In the event of hostilities," they wrote, "we urge that steps be taken to protect Iraq's heritage, in which we have a shared interest. Our military and civilian leaderships should be aware of the location of Iraq's most significant cultural and religious sites and monuments. To this end, we urge the administration to consider the creation now (and not later) of a planning mechanism specifically charged with ensuring that Iraq's material culture is protected.

"At the conclusion of hostilities, should they occur, the United States and its coalition partners will become heirs to responsibilities that include, in addition to the welfare of Iraq's people, the task of protecting Iraq's holy cities and ancient sites. Measures should be taken to ensure absolute respect for the integrity of Iraq's sites and monuments, and to prevent looting of any kind. In addition the coalition should encourage a new Iraqi civil administration to move quickly to establish security for its own monuments, sites and museums and support the reconstitution of Iraq's antiquities service.

"We should not allow our primary objectives in this region to overshadow our cultural responsibilities. Ultimately we may well be judged by how we behave toward Iraq's patrimony in the course of any military action and occupation we may undertake."

Again, no response from the White House, the Pentagon or the State Department. Finally, Collins, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict, contacted Hawkins in the first week of January and said he'd like to meet with him and whoever else he thought would be helpful in coming up with a plan to protect Iraq's archaeological heritage. Originally scheduled for mid-January, the meeting was postponed until Jan. 24. Those present at the meeting included Hawkins, Anderson, Gibson, Arthur Houghton, vice president of the American Council for Cultural Policy and a former curator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and, on the government's side, Collins and four other Pentagon officials.

The meeting was informal. Collins did not return calls seeking comment, but others who attended remember him saying that the Pentagon wanted to expand its list of archaeological sites. The Defense Department had a list of 150 sites compiled during the 1991 Gulf War. Gibson said he could provide the Pentagon with thousands and thousands of other sites worth protecting. The question was raised about what would be done to make sure that coalition forces protect and safeguard property. Collins reassured the group that he would issue an order making sure that the troops knew how to behave.

Everyone left the meeting satisfied that the Pentagon recognized the importance of safeguarding and protecting Iraq's sites. In subsequent communications with the Pentagon, Gibson stressed that after Saddam's regime collapsed, the coalition would have to quickly deploy Special Forces troops to secure cultural and archaeological sites to prevent them from being ransacked and damaged by looters. "I really hoped that the U.S. military would take the National Museum of Iraq and protect it," he says. "I was naive. I guess we were talking too far down the line of command."

Waldbaum, with the Archaeological Institute of America, says her group hadnt been invited to attend the meeting. But in January, she said, her group sent letters to officials at the State Department, the Defense Department, the White House and the Pentagon. They received no response.

In mid-March, just days before Anglo-American forces entered Baghdad, an expanded group met with Ryan Crocker, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund, a private, nonprofit architectural and art preservation organization in New York joined this meeting, according to others who attended. The fund designated two sites in Iraq for protection: the Nineveh and Nimrud Palaces near Mosul, portions of which are more than 2,700 years old, and the Arbil Citadel, built 8,000 years ago.

Crocker did not return calls seeking comment, but according to others at the meeting, he pledged that the State Department would set up a working group to focus on protecting Iraq's cultural and archaeological sites. He asked the people at the meeting to provide names of Iraqis who could participate in the working group once the coalition forces had secured Iraq.

On March 21, after Anglo-American forces were in southern Iraq, Waldbaum's institute was joined by other archaeologists and organizations worldwide in signing a letter to the Defense Department urging all governments involved in the war to protect Iraqs monuments, museums and archaeological sites. Again, no response.

On April 9, as coalition forces were entering Baghdad, the institute sent another letter, this time either by fax, e-mail or FedEx, to dozens of government officials, including Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice, President George W. Bush and even British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The next day, Waldbaum said, she received an e-mail from Maj. Christopher Varhola, stationed in Kuwait with the Armys cultural affairs office. The reply was sent in the early hours of April 10, the day the ransacking of the museum and other institutions began:

"We are very concerned with looting and pilfering," Varhola wrote. "This is of course complicated by the economic situation in Iraq over the past ten years and the presence of sophisticated smuggling operations and organizations. I have worked to stress the importance of this to the ground commanders. Based on the recent episode in Najaf, I am cautiously optimistic that this has sunk in....

"We have Civil Affairs teams on the ground in Baghdad and are awaiting their initial assessments. The general intent is that we secure the sites initially and then transition to civil control under the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA). I have forwarded your message to Ambassador John Limbert in ORHA. He is the designate to assist the Iraqi Ministry of Culture in the preservation of sites and artifacts. We had a lengthy meeting yesterday and he shares your concerns. He is working closely with the U.S. Army to implement protection measures."

The Army's intentions and concerns, as articulated by Varhola, came to nothing. Chaos ruled the day.

Archaeologists and art curators think that some of the looting was organized by a conspiracy of antiquity dealers and smugglers. Proof of that is that the heavy metal doors on the storage room at the National Museum of Iraq weren't broken down, indicating that it was opened with a key. Also, the card catalog listing the thousands and thousands of items in the museum was destroyed. There is a duplicate somewhere, but the destruction of the one of the catalogs shows that there was an effort to cover up what was going on. In fact, there have been reports that artifacts that were in the museum have already shown up in antiquity markets in Teheran and Paris.

"In warfare, there are priorities," Gibson says. "There are not enough troops necessary to do everything that needed to be done. But we have a responsibility under various rules in warfare to preserve the cultural patrimony of a country."

As worldwide outrage grew over the plundering of Iraq's great cultural and archaeological sites, the U.S. responded. On Monday, Powell made a statement that anyone caught dealing or possessing stolen antiquities may be prosecuted under Iraqi law and the United States National Stolen Property Act. He also said that Central Command issued orders to all troops in Iraq to protect museums and antiquities throughout the country.

Powell said U.S. radio broadcasts are encouraging Iraqis to return any items taken. The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs will help Iraqis and international experts in their efforts to restore artifacts and the catalogs of antiquities that were damaged by looters. Powell also said the U.S. is working through Interpol to help locate stolen items and return them to Iraq before they make it into international crime channels. And he said the U.S. has been in touch with the UNESCO to form a plan to safeguard Iraq's antiquities.

Some of the antiquities stolen will probably be stashed away in private collections for years and years. And many of the pieces that were damaged are beyond repair. Archaeological groups and art curators want to prevent the stolen artifacts from leaving the country. Once they're in other countries, it will be that much harder to retrieve them. To encourage Iraqis to return stolen art and artifacts, they are pushing for the U.S. government to set up an amnesty program and a reward system.

That's the model favored by Stuart E. Eizenstat, former deputy treasury secretary and a member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. "The money would be well spent in winning the goodwill of the Iraqi people," he said in an interview. It's important that as much of the art and antiquities be recovered before they are transported out of Iraq. "Once it's out of the country, it would pass through multiple hands. What I found out [when working to recover art stolen by the Nazis] was that the art world is a secretive world. As a dealer, you rely on information from your immediate sellers and you don't ask questions."

Waldbaum, with the Archaeological Institute of America, says she's talking to different groups and individuals about setting up a Web site that could be a repository for images and descriptions of all the artifacts that were in the museum. That way if they make it to the market, dealers and museum curators will be better able to determine if they were stolen from the Iraqi National Museum. But this will take much time.

Meanwhile, some of the looted artifacts inevitably will find their way through discreet channels to buyers. Among those, experts fear, many will never be recovered.

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Louise Witt

Louise Witt is a writer who lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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Donald Rumsfeld Iraq Iraq War Middle East United Nations