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As the full extent of the looting of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad emerges, it becomes clear that there was nothing accidental about it. Rather it was the result of a long planned project to plunder the artistic and historical treasures that are held in the museums of Iraq.
Had the National Museum of Iraq been looted by poor slum dwellers it would have been crime enough, and the responsibility would have rested with the American administration that refused, despite repeated warnings, to provide for the security of Baghdad’s cultural buildings.
Once the museum staff were able to communicate with the outside world, however, it became apparent that the looting was not random. It was the work of people who knew what they were looking for and came specially equipped for the job.
Dr. Dony George, head of the Baghdad Museum, said, “I believe they were people who knew what they wanted. They had passed by the gypsum copy of the Black Obelisk. This means that they must have been specialists. They did not touch those copies.”
Speaking on Britain’s Channel 4 News, he told Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum that among the artifacts that have been stolen are the sacred vase of Warka, a 5,000-year-old golden vessel found at Ur, an Akkadian statue base, and an Assyrian statue. It was, said Dr. Curtis, “Like stealing the Mona Lisa.”
It was only almost a week after the museum was originally looted that Dr. George was able to alert archaeologists worldwide to what had been stolen. The American military authorities had made no effort to prevent the objects leaving Baghdad or to put in process an international search for the stolen artifacts.
The US reluctance to act cannot be explained by any lack of warning. Professional archaeologists and art historians had told the Pentagon of the danger of looting beforehand. Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum told Channel 4 that the looting was “entirely predictable and could easily have been stopped.”
The museum was the victim of a carefully planned assault. The thieves who took the most valuable material came prepared with equipment to lift the heaviest objects, which the staff could not move from the galleries, and had keys to the vaults where the most valuable items were stored. Not since the Nazis systematically stripped the museums of Europe has such a crime been committed.
The US online publication of BusinessWeek magazine reiterated the theme of premeditation and conspiracy in the looting of Iraq’s museums in an April 17 article headlined “Were Baghdad’s Antiquity Thieves Ready?” The article carries the subtitle: “They may have known just what they were looking for because dealers ordered the most important pieces well in advance.”
BusinessWeek writes: “It was almost as if the perpetrators were waiting for Baghdad to fall to make their move. Gil J. Stein, a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago, which has been conducting digs in Iraq for 80 years, believes that dealers ordered the most important pieces well in advance. ‘They were looking for very specific artifacts,’ he says. ‘They knew where to look.’”
Since the last Gulf War in 1991 Iraqi antiquities have flooded onto the market from the museums that were looted then and from archaeological sites that have been attacked with bulldozers. At such locations ancient statues have been sawed apart so they could be exported.
This plundering of Iraq’s cultural heritage has only whetted the appetite of collectors who are already responsible for looting Far Eastern, Latin American and Italian archaeological sites. With the collapse of global stock markets, works of art and antiquities have come to be regarded even more highly as a secure investment, fuelling an already huge underground market.
The illegal trade in antiquities is thought to be as lucrative as drugs trafficking, to which it is often linked. According to a report by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, “The Trade in illicit Antiquities: the Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage,” produced in 2001, London and New York are the main markets for this trade. Switzerland, which allows an art work that has been in the country for five years to be granted a legal title, is a key trans-shipment point.
Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, director of the McDonald Institute at Cambridge, told a press conference at the report’s launch that the trade continued because “The government is in the pocket of the art market, which wants to keep the flow of antiquities.” He added, “It’s a scandal.”
As news of the latest looting broke, the Labour government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair organised a hasty press conference in the British Museum, at which Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell promised official support to protect Iraqi antiquities.
Even as she spoke, the National Library of Iraq was being looted. Home to rare, centuries-old illuminated copies of the Koran and other examples of Islamic calligraphy, as well as irreplaceable historical documents from the Ottoman Empire, the building was set on fire, destroying an untold number of texts.
Reporter Robert Fisk, who saw the flames, ran to get US marines in an attempt to save some of the collection, but they refused to help. Fisk wrote in the Independent, “I gave the map location, the precise name in Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn’t an American at the scene and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.”
After the fate of Baghdad museum, it can only be concluded that the generalized looting and arson at the library served to cover up a more systematic crime, in which select manuscripts were stolen for wealthy collectors. In the process they connived in the burning of books—another Nazi practice.
As we all know this isn’t new behavior by the Department of Defense, especially when taking Operation Northwoods into account. The lack of integrity displayed by our government is tantamount to that of the horrors depicted in the book of revelations. With that being said it’s no surprise that the U.S government is complicit in the smuggling of nimrods body after German archaeologists unearthed his tomb and all of ‘Uruk’ in 2003, which is modern day Iraq. Stay inquisitive in the word of God, and the world around you.
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