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U.S. Allowing Looted Treasures To Leave Iraq

by Sanjay Suri

War In The Birthplace Of Civilization
(IPS) LONDON -- U.S. forces looked the other way while Iraqi museums were being looted, and now they are doing the same as many of the treasures are taken out of the war-racked country, says Donny George, Director of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

"The Americans are controlling the border check points but they are not controlling who is going out or what they are taking with them," George told a press conference at the British Museum in London April 29.

George, who drove out of Iraq into Jordan, said there were no controls enforced by U.S. troops. "On the other side in Jordan they are checking everyone thoroughly," he said. "And they have caught a dozen people trying to smuggle looted treasures from Iraq's museums," he said. "I am very sorry to say that almost all of them have been journalists."

At the moment it is only media people who are moving freely in and out of Iraq, George said. "But the U.S. control is almost zero, and today anyone can take anything and go out of Iraq," he said. "This is a tragedy. We are appealing to the U.S. forces to stop this bleeding of antiques that is going on."

George, who was at the National Museum in Baghdad just before the looting began, said much of the looting could have been prevented if only the U.S. forces had moved a tank about 50 meters from where it had been positioned.

"We could see that the looters were outside," George said. "Appeals were made to the tank crew to move up but they said they had no orders."

George's graphic account of what followed raises serious questions about the U.S. role. "We saw tanks coming at us from both sides on Tuesday April 8," he said. "Members of the militia jumped into our compound and heavy fighting began. In the circumstances we all had to leave the compound."

The fighting was followed by the looting, which continued right until Sunday. The violence in Baghdad meant that George and his staff could not return to the museum. "On Sunday we went to the U.S. officers at Palestine Hotel to do what they could to stop the looting," he said. "But it was not until Wednesday that they positioned four tanks to guard the museum."

That was after a week of the looters having a free run of the museum, George said. It was a week also after the first appeal to the U.S., and three days after a formal appeal to the U.S. administration at their offices in Palestine Hotel.

Much of that looting through the week was clearly pre-planned, George said. "There were two kinds of looters, he said. "Some came in just like they went into other buildings to loot what they could," he said. "But some knew what there was in the museums, and they knew what they were looking for."

George produced a glass cutter to show the kind of equipment some looters came with. "We found four of these," he said. "Some had come prepared with equipment to cut through the glass cases." There were some important fake statues in the museum which were never touched, he said. But some of the most important masterpieces were taken," he said. Among these he listed the following:

  • The Warka Vase, a limestone vase decorated with reliefs from 3100 BC

  • Gold rosettes and copper cup, dated 2500 BC

  • Inscribed statue of King Entemena of Lagash, 2400 BC

Of two figures of the reign of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, one was looted and one returned -- in three pieces

But the museum curators still do not know what is missing, George said. The looters got into the store rooms that housed about 170,000 precious objects. Only when these are examined will they know what is missing. That process can take six months at the very least, he said.

Some of the objects looted are being brought back after an appeal made through local imams, George said. Daily appeals are being broadcast also on the local radio stations.

George dismissed a suggestion by a journalist from the U.S. that the looting could have been an "inside job" by museum staff and by Saddam Hussein's people. "I know how Saddam Hussein cared for antiquities," he said. "In one case some thieves entered a museum and cut off the head of an object. Saddam had their heads cut off as punishment."

George said he was not praising Saddam Hussein for that action, but he said it indicated that Saddam Hussein's men were not likely to be behind the looting and destruction of the museums.

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Albion Monitor April 29, 2003 (

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