U.S. managing to spare cultural sites, officials say

As war shifts to streets of Baghdad, risk of harm to landmarks may rise

War in Iraq

April 07, 2003|By David Wharton | David Wharton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KUWAIT CITY -- It was an odd comment for a military briefing, the lieutenant colonel in his camouflage uniform complaining that enemy soldiers were attempting to "take advantage of our cultural sensitivity."

Yet such is the fine line American and British forces say they have negotiated in the war against Iraq.

More than two weeks into the fighting, commanders say their troops have succeeded in rolling over the enemy all the while preserving historical sites in this land often referred to as the cradle of Western civilization.

Precision bombs have leveled government complexes while avoiding museums. Everyone from pilots to artillery commanders to tank drivers, they say, is advised about historical sites during briefings. A few days ago in Najaf, troops came under attack from Iraqis hiding in a revered mosque and did not return fire.

But even as Lt. Col. John Kuttas boasted of such restraint before reporters Saturday, he acknowledged it becomes tougher now that tank commanders are rolling through the chaotic and hostile streets of Baghdad. "That's the danger if someone is tired and scared," the civil affairs officer said. "He may have been told this corner has a facility that is 2,000 years old, but he may not remember that, particularly if someone is shooting at him."

There has been only mild criticism so far, from some wondering why the Americans and British chose to bomb Baghdad palaces that predate Saddam Hussein's reign.

While officials didn't address that question, Kuttas was quick to point out the city's most-cherished landmark, the Iraq National Museum, had not been damaged as of the weekend. The museum ranks near the top of a military list that includes thousands of historical and cultural locations throughout Iraq. Before the war began, Pentagon officials met with academics and archaeologists who drew up 4,000 "do not bomb" landmarks.

No one would say how many of those landmarks have been hit, if any, but Kuttas and others took pains to show they are concerned about the possibility for what one University of Chicago archaeologist called "cultural genocide."

Also on the list of places to protect are thousands of unexcavated archaeological sites that take the form of mounds known as tells.

"More than just bombing can cause damage," said Maj. Christopher Varhola, 34, of the Army's 352nd Civil Affairs Battalion. "Digging ditches or earthworks can inflict damage."

Twelve years ago, Varhola was a tank platoon leader in the Persian Gulf war and, during the course of battle, rumbled up to the great ziggurat in Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. Mindful that Americans might hesitate to attack, Iraqis had parked jet fighters beside the mud-brick platform built 2,500 years ago.

"It just really disgusted me," Varhola said.

The ziggurat suffered shrapnel damage during fighting, but afterward Varhola was among the troops who towed the enemy jets a safe distance before destroying them. In the years since, he has returned to college and is working on his doctorate in cultural anthropology.

Now a reserve officer, he was called upon to help the Americans implement their plan. He speaks reverentially of the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the site of ancient Mesopotamia where Western writing, mathematics, astronomy and agriculture had their beginnings.

The Americans say they were especially careful around Najaf and Karbala, cities of historic and religious significance. In situations such as the one at the Mosque of Ali last week, battlefield units are supposed to seek approval before attacking a protected site. But Kuttas warned this caution goes only so far.

"Obviously we don't expect our soldiers to die while they are waiting for an answer," he said. "The commander in the field has to make that decision."

David Wharton writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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