Iraq's National Museum to Reopen Nearly 6 Years After Being Looted Early in War

By Sudarsan Raghavan and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

BAGHDAD, Feb. 23 -- Iraq's National Museum, once one of the world's leading repositories of Islamic culture and artifacts from other eras, is scheduled to reopen Tuesday, nearly six years after looters plundered it following the U.S.-led invasion.

"It was a dark age that Iraq passed through," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said at a dedication ceremony Monday. "This spot of civilization has had its share of destruction."

The museum's reopening is the latest sign, he added, that Iraq is becoming more stable after years of bloodshed. Maliki said Iraqis are regaining their status in the world following last month's peaceful provincial elections and "their embrace of democracy, which is a proof that Iraqis are capable of adopting and promoting all aspects of civilized life."

Founded in 1923, the museum in central Baghdad once contained important pieces from the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian periods, as well as from the Stone Age. After the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government, thieves carried away thousands of important artifacts; U.S. troops did nothing to stop the looting, drawing intense criticism from Iraqis as well as the international community.

Since then, a massive effort has been underway by Iraqi ministries and foreign governments to restore the stolen pieces, which Iraq estimated at as many as 15,000. According to the United Nations' cultural arm, UNESCO, as many as 7,000 pieces are still missing, including 50 items of historical importance.

Museum spokesman Abdul Zahra Taliqani said the museum will have seven sections, displaying items from the Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Islamic periods, including antiquities excavated in Iraq during the past two years.

Meanwhile on Monday, a Sunni politician accused of orchestrating a 2007 suicide bombing inside Iraq's parliament building asserted that he was a victim of a government effort to silence critics. Mohammed al-Daini told reporters that Iraq's Shiite-led government had tortured two of his former bodyguards to elicit the accusations, and he urged human rights groups to investigate the matter.

On Sunday, the government released video of the allegations made by the bodyguards during interrogations. The two men, including Daini's nephew, said the lawmaker had ordered, among other brutalities, that more than 100 people be buried alive as revenge for the killings of some of his bodyguards.

Daini has been a vocal critic of the government, alleging human rights abuses against Sunnis and publicly asserting that Iran's Shiite theocracy controls many of Iraq's Shiite politicians.

"The confessions of my bodyguards were forcefully taken and they lack evidence to support them," he said. "I am paying the price of revealing many cases of human rights violations and corruption."

Iraqi officials said they were waiting for a court-issued warrant and then would ask parliament to lift Daini's immunity from prosecution as a lawmaker.

Special correspondent Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.

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