Iraqi Museum Sealed Against Looters

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 27, 2006

BAGHDAD, Aug. 26 -- Before he quit as head of Iraq's antiquities board, Donny George made a final desperate attempt this summer to safeguard the relics of 5,000 years of history: He ordered the doors of the National Museum plugged with concrete against the near-unbridled looting of ancient artifacts.

The longtime guardian of Iraqi antiquities under Saddam Hussein and later under a government led by Shiite Muslim religious parties then left the country and sent notice of his resignation in early August, Culture Ministry officials confirmed Saturday.

George, who alerted the world to the looting of Iraq's irreplaceable ancient works of art and writings in the days after U.S. troops moved into Baghdad in 2003, told the Art Newspaper that he found "intolerable" the ongoing failure of Iraqi leaders and U.S. military forces to protect the sites. The London-based monthly reported George's departure on Saturday.

George, an Iraqi Christian, cited what he said was growing pressure by officials of Iraq's ruling Shiite parties to emphasize Iraq's Islamic heritage and ignore the earlier civilizations that stretched back to Babylon and beyond. "A lot of people have been sent to our institutions," the Art Newspaper quoted him as saying. "They are only interested in Islamic sites and not Iraq's earlier heritage."

He also complained of a lack of funding to protect archaeological sites around Iraq. Funding runs out in September for 1,400 specially trained patrolmen who guard the sites, he told the art publication, and no more money has been budgeted to protect places that date to the Sumerian civilization in 3000 B.C.

"I can tell you the situation regarding antiquities is horrible," McGuire Gibson, an authority on Mesopotamian archaeology at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, said by telephone from Chicago.

"There was a lot of attention paid to the looting of the museum the very same days the war started," Gibson said. "It hasn't stopped. There has been looting of sites on an industrial scale. Some of the greatest Sumerian sites have gone."

In the weeks before the U.S.-led invasion, Gibson worked to alert the U.S. military to the thousands of ancient sites across Iraq. The work helped save Iraq's heritage from U.S. bombs, but not from the looting -- unforeseen by U.S. military and civilian war planners -- that broke out after the collapse of Hussein's government.

Mobs ransacked government buildings down to the light switch plates and set fire to many of them during the ensuing days of anarchy in Baghdad and other cities. U.S. troops, with no orders to stop the looters, watched for several days before moving against the thieves.

At the time of the invasion, the National Museum contained at least 170,000 items, some of which were moved elsewhere for safekeeping before the outbreak of hostilities. At least 13,000 pieces from the museum were believed to be stolen in the days after U.S. troops entered Baghdad on April 9.

"It was the leading collection . . . of a continuous history of mankind," a desolate George said April 13, 2003, as he crunched through glass from shattered display cases and ransacked museum offices. "And it's gone, and it's lost."

The Culture Ministry ordered the museum closed and has not announced plans to reopen it. Surrounded by weeds, it now sits behind metal gates, piled sandbags and concertina wire. Wary guards holding pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles came to a front gate Saturday and confirmed that the museum's front entrance had been sealed.

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