Millenniums' riches looted in just 2 days

Museum's stunned leaders call spree disastrous, angrily blame U.S.

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By John F. Burns | John F. Burns,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The National Museum of Iraq recorded a history of civilizations that began to flourish in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia more than 7,000 years ago. But once U.S. troops entered Baghdad in sufficient force to topple Saddam Hussein's government last week, it took looters only 48 hours to destroy the museum and carry away at least 50,000 artifacts.

The extent of the disaster that befell the museum did not come to light until yesterday, as the looting that swept much of the capital over the previous three days began to ebb and museum officials reached foreign journalists with word of what is likely to be reckoned as one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history.

A full accounting of what has been lost may take weeks or months. The museum had been closed during much of the 1990s, and like many Iraqi institutions, its operations were cloaked in secrecy under Hussein.

So what officials told journalists yesterday may have to be adjusted as a fuller picture comes to light. It remains unclear whether some of the museum's priceless gold, silver and copper antiquities, some of its ancient stone and ceramics, and perhaps some of its fabled bronzes and gold-overlaid ivory, had been locked away for safekeeping elsewhere before the looting, or seized for private display in one of Hussein's palaces.

What was beyond doubt was that the 28 galleries of the museum and vaults, whose huge steel doors guard chambers that descend floor after floor into darkness, had been ransacked.

Officials fought back tears and anger at U.S. troops as they ran down an inventory of the most storied items that they said had been carried away by the thousands of looters who poured into the museum after daybreak Thursday and remained until dusk Friday, with only one intervention by U.S. troops, lasting about a half-hour, at lunchtime Thursday.

Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.

The officials listed a solid gold harp from the Sumerian era, which began about 3360 B.C. and started to crumble about 2000 B.C. Another item on their list of looted antiquities was a sculptured head of a woman from Uruk, one of the great Sumerian cities, dating to about the same era, and a collection of gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings, also from the Sumerian dynasties and also at least 4,000 years old.

But an item-by item inventory hardly seemed to capture the magnitude of what had occurred. More powerful, in its way, was the action of one museum official, who hurried through piles of smashed ceramics and torn books and burned-out gasoline-soaked rag torches that littered the corridors to find the glossy catalog of an exhibition of "silk road civilization" that was held in Japan's ancient capital of Nara in 1988.

Turning to 50 pages of items lent by the Iraqi museum for the exhibition, he said that none of the returned antiquities pictured remained after the looting. They included ancient stone carvings of bulls and kings and princesses; copper shoes and cuneiform tablets; tapestry fragments and ivory figurines of goddesses and women and Nubian porters; friezes of soldiers and ancient seals and tablets on geometry; and ceramic jars and urns and bowls, all dating back at least 2,000 years, some more than 5,000 years.

"All gone, all gone," he said. "All gone in two days."

An Iraqi archaeologist, Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, said he had gone into the street of the Karkh district about 1 p.m. Thursday to find U.S. troops to quell the looting. By then, he and other museum officials said, the several acres of museum grounds were overrun by thousands of men, women and children, many armed with rifles, pistols, axes, knives, clubs and metal torn from wrecked cars. The crowd was storming out of the complex carrying antiquities on carts, bicycles and in boxes. Looters stuffed their pockets with smaller items.

Muhammad said he found a U.S. Abrams tank in Museum Square, about 300 yards away, and that five Marines had followed him to the museum and opened fire above the looters' heads. This drove several thousand of the marauders out of the museum complex in minutes, he said, but when the tank crewmen left about 30 minutes later, the looters returned.

"I asked them to bring their tank inside the museum grounds," he said. "But they refused and left. About half an hour later, the looters were back, and they threatened to kill me, or to tell the Americans that I am a spy for Saddam Hussein's intelligence, so that the Americans would kill me. So I was frightened, and I went home."

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