Blind eye to history

April 20, 2003

WHILE THE AMERICANS were busy pre-empting Saddam Hussein, Baghdad's residents pre-emptied the National Museum.

Bush administration leaders were quick to congratulate themselves for successfully securing Iraq's oil fields. The thorough looting of one of the world's great collections of antiquities? Well, that's just one of the costs of freedom.

American soldiers and Marines argue that they were otherwise engaged while looters and professional crooks swiped and smashed tens of thousands of items from the museum over a period of 48 hours. Maybe that was so, but the devastation of the museum took place just over a week ago, and it has taken Washington nearly all this time to wake up to the dimensions of the act of vandalism that was committed against human history, right under the nose of the most powerful military on the planet.

Unfortunately, that's about a week and then some too late. And there still seems to be little acknowledgment of the destruction of libraries in Baghdad and of another priceless museum -- this one in Mosul.

The rest of the world -- remember them? -- has not been so slow to catch on. Governments, museums and archaeologists have been mobilizing in an international effort to assess the damage. The United Nations sponsored a meeting in Paris last week where it was agreed to send an emergency mission to Iraq. The Italian government chipped in $1 million and may send a squad of carabinieri -- who but the Italians would have art police? -- to accompany it.

Other governments willing to provide funds are those in Qatar, Egypt, Britain and France.

The Archeological Institute in Berlin, the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the British Museum are all lending a hand. Among the first to be counted last week was the Metropolitan Museum, which may be American -- but isn't in Washington.

Late in the week, the FBI announced that it was sending a team of agents to Baghdad to help in cataloging the losses, which is at least a gesture in the right direction.

But the best that can be hoped for is that the market for these antiquities will be shut down. Recovery is almost out of the question.

It's not clear precisely what's been taken and what may be in safekeeping. Feared missing? A 4,000-year-old silver harp from Ur. A 4,500-year-old bronze figure of an Akkadian king. A 5,200-year-old Sumerian vase. And 80,000 cuneiform tablets, inscribed with the world's earliest writing.

Last week, Gary Vikan, of the Walters Art Museum, and Martin Sullivan, of the Historic St. Mary's City Commission, resigned in protest from a presidential advisory panel. That move seemed to give voice, said Mr. Vikan, to "a growing sense of loss, bewilderment, maybe anger, confusion."

The National Museum was a weapon of mass instruction, and in the chaos of the war it was spirited away right out from under us.

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