As the United States moves closer to possible military intervention in Iraq, we have heard much from our government about the need to remove, by force if necessary, the threat of weapons of mass destruction. We recognize that the U.S. government intends to minimize collateral damage to Iraq's innocent civilian population, should this course be unavoidable. But we are unaware of any systematic government-wide thought being given to the protection of religious and cultural sites of that ancient land.

Iraq -- ancient Mesopotamia -- is the birthplace of Western civilization. Writing, accounting and the government of city-states were all invented there. Early scientific experiments were conducted there. Many scholars believe, for instance, that the invention of glass was the result of one of these experiments. Hammurabi, king of Babylon, developed his famous code of laws to "cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong may not oppress the weak." The names of some of Iraq's ancient cities -- Ur, Babylon, Uruk, Nineveh, Nippur, Eridu and Lagash -- echo with the voices of history. What they contain is not merely the patrimony of one small nation but that of much of the modern world, including the United States, which can trace some of its own beliefs, systems and sciences to ancient Mesopotamia.

Iraq is also a revered center of Islamic history and culture. Under the later caliphs, at a time when Europe was in its dark age of history, Samarra, with its extraordinary palaces and mosques, was a heart -- some would say "the" heart -- of the Islamic world. And Iraq's holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf are not just places of ancient importance: Like other smaller sites such as Qadhimain, which is now within greater Baghdad, they are endowed with a religious significance that resonates throughout the Shiite and broader Islamic world. Damage to these centers could severely affect the trust of Iraq's Shiite population and would impair our ability to retain the support of others in the region.

In the event of hostilities, 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. The mechanism may need to be open -- not cloaked by national security concerns -- in order to avail itself of the outside specialized scholarly knowledge it requires.

Scholars in the United States familiar with Mesopotamian and Islamic history and archeology are willing and able to assist in designating sites and locations of special cultural and religious importance. To whom should they speak?

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.

No less a figure than Dwight D. Eisenhower, on the eve of the invasion of Normandy, issued the following instruction: "Shortly we will be fighting our way across the Continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers that symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible."

At this moment in our history, our own responsibility is no less.

Ashton Hawkins is president of the American Council for Cultural Policy, and Maxwell Anderson is president of the American Association of Art Museum Directors.