US colonel offers Iraq an apology of sorts for devastation of Babylon.

In an act of at least partial contrition, an officer in charge of the US military occupation of Babylon in 2003 and 2004 has offered to make a formal apology for the destruction his troops wrought on the ancient site.

Colonel John Coleman, former chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, said yesterday that if the head of the Iraqi antiquities board wanted an apology, "if it makes him feel good, we can certainly give him one".

For more than a millennium, Babylon was one of the great cities of antiquity. It reached its greatest glory in the early 6th century BC, as the capital of Nebuchadnezzar II, builder of the celebrated Hanging Gardens.

Babylon declined and fell into ruin after it was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great in around 538BC. But no devastation seems to have matched that inflicted by US troops and their Polish allies after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam himself had not helped. He had much of the ancient site rebuilt and developed as a tourist site as part of efforts to portray himself as Nebuchadnezzar's modern successor and turn Mesopotamia once more into a regional superpower.

He built a contemporary ziggurat-shaped palace nearby and carved out an underground car park among archeological deposits.

But after entering Babylon in April 2003, coalition forces turned the site into a base camp, flattening and compressing tracts of ruins as they built a helicopter pad and fuel stations.

The soldiers filled sandbags with archeological fragments and dug trenches through unexcavated areas, while tanks crushed slabs of original 2,600-year-old paving.

"All of these things have combined to do a lot of damage to what is one of the most important, sensitive archeological sites in the whole world," John Curtis, curator of the British Museum's Near East department, said last year.

Col Coleman's repentance was qualified. "If it wasn't for our presence," he told the BBC, "what would the state of those archeological ruins be?" - a repeat of the US claim that had its forces not occupied ancient Babylon, the site would have been laid waste by looters.

"Is there a price for the presence? Sure there is," he declared. "I'll just say that the price, had the presence not been there, would have been far greater."

After US and Polish troops left in 2004, the first restoration plans for Babylon were drawn up. Last November Unesco, the United Nations' cultural and scientific organisation, said it would be carrying out some initial repair work, and setting up a photographic registry of the site.

The work, in which France, Britain, Poland, the US, Iraq, Japan, Italy and the Netherlands are also involved, is being co-ordinated by the German Archaeological Institute, under the direction of the Iraqi authorities and Unesco. But Babylon is not the only point of archaeological controversy in a country with an estimated 10,000 sites. In a separate complaint, the Iraqi Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities has demanded that US troops pull out of the city of Kish, which dates back 5,000 years, accusing American forces of damaging the precious archaeological site.

It accused the soldiers of preventing anyone from entering the city to assess damage. There has been no comment from the US military.

* At least six Iraqi policeman died and up to 39 others were missing yesterday after insurgents ambushed a police convoy near a US base, officials said. Separately, a suicide car bomber outside Basra wounded four British soldiers at the Shuaiba military base, and killed at least one civilian.

Archaeological cost of invasion

* US Marines from the First Expeditionary Force first set up camp in Babylon in April 2003

* Soldiers filled protective sandbags with sand containing ancient artefacts

* 2,600-year-old pavements were crushed by heavy military vehicles

* Landing helicopters caused structural damage to some of the city's ancient buildings and sandblasted fragile bricks in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar

* Archaeologists say gravel brought in to build car parks and helipads has contaminated key sites

* US troops have also been accused of causing damage to the 5,000-year-old city of Kish by the Iraqi Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities

[Source: By Rupert Cornwell in Washington, The Independent, London, 15apr06]

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