U.S. historian calls Iraqi looting of art a 'crime against civilization' WAR IN THE GULF

March 11, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT CITY -- Army Reserve Lt. Col. Jeffrey Greenhut of Olney, Md., expected to see damage when he got to Kuwait City, but this was worse than he thought.

"This is mindless destruction," he said yesterday, angrily surveying the scene before him. "This is outrageous. It is the uncivilized tribes from the steppes rampaging in to steal and destroy what they cannot carry off."

Colonel Greenhut is a historian, and what he saw yesterday was the charred remains of the galleries of the Kuwait National Museum.

The Iraqis systematically looted the museum, carted away truckloads of treasures and then set fire to what was left. The blaze converted the remaining artwork into a chalky soot.

To a historian, these are high crimes. "What we ought to have here is a Nuremberg investigation," the 49-year-old officer grumbled.

"There are crimes against humanity. There are crimes against the planet. This is a crime against civilization."

Ahmed al-Tattan wandered through the gutted buildings. He had worked as a tour guide at the museum before Aug. 2, when the Iraqis invaded. Yesterday was the first day he came back.

He found a steel frame that had supported a huge 14th-century (( Moroccan door, a work of art engraved with intricate inscriptions from the Koran.

"I hope the Iraqis took it with them," he said, almost to himself. But there, in the ashes, were hinges and a doorknob, evidence that the masterpiece had been burned.

"I don't think I have words for this," said Mr. Tattan, quietly.

Nor did Ibraheem al-Baghli, director of the museum. He had used Kuwaiti oil revenues to acquire a remarkable collection of Arabian art and archaeology.

His Greek collection went back to the 3rd century B.C., and the Islamic Museum was among the largest in the world. An archaeology program had unearthed rare antiquities.

There were traditional robes and Mongol daggers encrusted with gold, emeralds and diamonds. There was a collection of Turkish flags made to commemorate battles. Mr. Baghli was particularly proud of the collection of 400 official seals dating to 2,500 B.C.

They are all gone, all taken or destroyed, with the exception of a small collection that had been abroad on a traveling display when the invasion occurred. (The display opened at the Walters Art Gallery in December.)

"The museum is part of my life," said Mr. Baghli. "Each piece is like my son. I feel like a father who has lost my sons -- and my self."

Mr. Baghli keeps some hope. When the Iraqis invaded, they quickly secured the museum, and the head of the Iraq Museum arrived to supervise its looting, he said.

He believes that much of the contents of the museum was carted in a caravan of trucks to Baghdad. As part of Iraq's agreement to abide by United Nations Security Council resolutions, it has agreed to return all material it took from Kuwait.

Perhaps, if the Iraqis are true to their word, and if they packed the materials carefully so as not to damage them, some will again be on exhibit in Kuwait, Mr. Baghli said.

It is Colonel Greenhut's job to help make that happen. He is part of a Civil Affairs section of the Army that has moved into Kuwait City to help the government get back on its feet.

He is normally a civilian historian with the Naval Security Group in Washington, and he works with classified histories of cryptology. He also runs what he describes as a small museum at the Naval Security Station -- "by appointment only" -- dealing with the same subject.

He is the arts, monuments and archives officer with the Army's Civil Affairs group. An odd function to send to a war-torn country, perhaps, but "right now, the museum ministers are probably walking around stunned," he said.

With artifacts, he said, "it's important to secure the chain of custody. If you break that, you can no longer vouch" for an object's authenticity.

He came with plans to secure the museums to retain that custody and make sure they are not further damaged. But here, at Kuwait's main museum, he found nothing to secure.

"I've devoted my life to the acquisition of knowledge," he said, looking at the ashes of the place. "This makes me mad."

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