April 16, 2003
Who Plundered Iraq National Museum?
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
Two Journalistic Perspectives:
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US plans to loot Iraqi antiques
FEARS that Iraq's heritage will face widespread looting at the end of the Gulf war have been heightened after a group of wealthy art dealers secured a high-level meeting with the US administration.
It has emerged that a coalition of antiquities collectors and arts lawyers, calling itself the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), met with US defence and state department officials prior to the start of military action to offer its assistance in preserving the country's invaluable archaeological collections.
The group is known to consist of a number of influential dealers who favour a relaxation of Iraq's tight restrictions on the ownership and export of antiquities. Its treasurer, William Pearlstein, has described Iraq's laws as 'retentionist' and has said he would support a post-war government that would make it easier to have antiquities dispersed to the US.
Before the Gulf war, a main strand of the ACCP's campaigning has been to persuade its government to revise the Cultural Property Implementation Act in order to minimise efforts by foreign nations to block the import into the US of objects, particularly antiques.
News of the group's meeting with the government has alarmed scientists and archaeologists who fear the ACCP is working to a hidden agenda that will see the US authorities ease restrictions on the movement of Iraqi artefacts after a coalition victory in Iraq.
Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, leading Cambridge archaeologist and director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, said: 'Iraqi antiquities legislation protects Iraq. The last thing one needs is some group of dealer-connected Americans interfering. Any change to those laws would be absolutely monstrous. '
A wave of protest has also come from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), which says any weakening of Iraq's strict antiquities laws would be 'disastrous'. President Patty Gerstenblith said: 'The ACCP's agenda is to encourage the collecting of antiquities through weakening the laws of archaeologically-rich nations and eliminate national ownership of antiquities to allow for easier export. '
The ACCP has caused deep unease among archaeologists since its creation in 2001. Among its main members are collectors and lawyers with chequered histories in collecting valuable artefacts, including alleged exhibitions of Nazi loot.
They denied accusations of attempting to change Iraq's treatment of archaeological objects. Instead, they said at the January meeting they offered 'post-war technical and financial assistance', and 'conservation support'.
Liam McDougall/Sunday Herald
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Iraq National Museum Treasures Plundered.
AFP. 12 April 2003.
BAGHDAD -- The famed Iraq National Museum, home of extraordinary Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections and rare Islamic texts, sat empty Saturday -- except for shattered glass display cases and cracked pottery bowls that littered the floor.
In an unchecked frenzy of cultural theft, looters who pillaged government buildings and businesses after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime also targeted the museum.
Gone were irreplaceable archaeological treasures from the Cradle of Civilization.
Everything that could be carried out has disappeared from the museum -- gold bowls and drinking cups, ritual masks worn in funerals, elaborately wrought headdresses, lyres studded with jewels -- priceless craftsmanship from ancient Mesopotamia.
"This is the property of this nation and the treasure of 7,000 years of civilization. What does this country think it is doing?" asked Ali Mahmoud, a museum employee, futility and frustration in his voice.
Much of the looting occurred Thursday, according to a security guard who stood by helplessly as hoards broke into the museum with wheelbarrows and carts and stole priceless jewelry, clay tablets and manuscripts.
Left behind were row upon row of empty glass cases -- some smashed up, others left intact -- heaps of crumbled pottery and hunks of broken statues scattered across the exhibit floors.
Sensing its treasures could be in peril, museum curators secretly removed antiquities from their display cases before the war and placed them into storage vaults -- but to no avail.
The doors of the vaults were opened or smashed, and everything was taken, museum workers said.
Gordon Newby, a historian and professor of Middle Eastern studies at Emory University in Atlanta, said the museum's most famous holding may have been tablets with Hammurabi's Code -- one of mankind's earliest codes of law.
Other treasures believed to be housed at the museum -- such as the Ram in the Thicket from Ur, a statue representing a deity from 2600 B.C. -- are no doubt gone, perhaps forever, he said.
"This is just one of the most tragic things that could happen for our being able to understand the past," Newby said.
A museum employee, reduced to tears after coming to the museum Saturday and finding her office and all administrative offices trashed by looters, said:
"It is all the fault of the Americans. This is Iraq's civilization. And it's all gone now."
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
otherwise noted, all original