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Iraqi Museum Sealed Against Looters
Antiquities Chief Quits Post, Flees Country, Citing Lack of Safeguards for Historic Treasures

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.

George said he acted on his own when he ordered the doors sealed this summer, after government officials did not immediately respond to his request for permission. "It was the only way to guarantee the museum's safety," George told the Art Newspaper. Colleagues say he has moved with his family to Syria.

George did not immediately respond to an e-mail request late Saturday for comment. The culture minister, a Sunni Muslim, could not be reached for comment Saturday, which is not a government workday in Iraq.

Culture Ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they said they were not authorized to comment, confirmed that Haider Farhan, a member of a Shiite religious party, has become the acting head of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage since George's departure. George told the Art Newspaper that Farhan had no relevant experience for the job. A Culture Ministry official questioned that judgment, saying Harhan was a young official in the department with a master's degree in Islamic manuscripts.

"If they are now going to be projecting an Islamic line, let them do it," Gibson said from Chicago. "They shouldn't be damaging pre-Islamic ones in that effort."

"The destruction that's already gone on in looting since 2003 is irrevocable," he said. "We've lost whole sites. We've lost whole cities."

Meanwhile Saturday, hundreds of Iraqi tribal leaders endorsed a national reconciliation plan that Iraqi and U.S. leaders hope will help restore stability and security after 3 1/2 years of war and growing sectarian and ethnic conflict.

"Realizing the gravity of the situation our country is undergoing, we pledge in front of God and the Iraqi people to be sincere and serious in preserving the unity of our country," declared the pact signed by the tribal chiefs and read aloud by one of them in a live television broadcast.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government is struggling to control sectarian violence that has become rampant in recent months and a Sunni Arab insurgency that has raged since the U.S.-led ouster of Hussein. According to an Associated Press tally, about 10,000 people have been killed since Maliki's government took office in May.

At least 26 people were killed in attacks Saturday, including three boys who died when a bomb planted on a soccer field exploded as they were playing. The bombing occurred in Balad Ruz, 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Kidnappers on Saturday freed a female Sunni lawmaker, Tayseer al-Mashadani, who was abducted July 1. Maliki's spokesman, Ali Debagh, said she was released as a result of mediation by a third party, but he gave no other details.

In Basra, gunmen in a speeding car opened fire Saturday on two sisters working as translators for the British Consulate, killing one and seriously wounding the other, police told the Associated Press.

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and another Washington Post employee in Iraq contributed to this report.

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