Iraq and ruin
By Neal Ascherson

Donny George reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of lined paper, torn off a pad. "I don't know why I still carry it around". Scribbled on it in ballpoint is a request for free access to the Baghdad Museum for George, the acting director, and Dr Jabir Khalil, of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities. It is signed by Lieutenant-Colonel PA Zarcone, civil affairs officer for the 1st Marine Infantry Division.

That was Sunday, April 13. The two men, who had been sheltering from the fighting in nearby houses, had heard reports that the museum was being sacked and had managed to reach the Palestine hotel where the Marines had a command post. Colonel Zarcone assured them that he would order local American troops to protect the museum. But when they reached the site, they saw at once that it was too late. The "crime of the century", as George calls it, was over. It had taken place on the previous Thursday, Friday and Saturday, as hordes of looters, in pairs or in gangs, carried out of the galleries what they could steal and smashed what they could not. The nearby American tanks had done nothing to stop them. Their crews shrugged off frantic appeals from museum staff to move a few yards and block off the entrance. No way. They had no orders.

George went back to the Palestine, borrowed a satellite phone from the Channel 4 team and called his friend John Curtis at the British Museum. "I said, 'We are here with no protection, the museum has been looted, we are afraid that the looters will return and maybe set fire to this building ...' And I think Neil MacGregor [the British Museum director] and John Curtis did something at a very high level. I think maybe they talked to Blair who talked to Colin Powell. The tanks came to guard the museum - but not until three days later".

This week, George was a central witness in the one-day emergency conference on Iraq's antiquities organized at the British Museum in London. The fate of the Iraq museums, the loss of the relics of humanity's first cities and writings, has appalled the world. But George does not throw blame around. He is a calm, square figure with remarkable black-and-silver eyebrows; he tells the awful story as it happened, but tells it without letting resentment show. Iraq is a polite country, and he does not have to. "As you know, many people in this country thought the war was utterly wrong and mistaken," I say to him at one point. George's dark eyes glitter a bit, but he makes no comment.

His calm is especially remarkable, because he has been through all this before. In 1991, after the Kuwait war, nine of Iraq's regional museums were looted by mobs. "We lost over 4,000 artefacts [in 2003, it is over 14,000]. Even the buildings had to be reconstructed. The looting was just the same as this time, the same combination of people. The son of the director of the Amara museum was killed in front of the building, and the director at Kirkuk was nearly killed too." George was shot at several times as he tried to stop the plundering. In short, he knew perfectly well what was likely to happen in the wake of the 2003 war, and he warned the outside world repeatedly.

Why do people loot in this way? The west was shocked at the spectacle of what was characterized as "a nation destroying its own heritage". George sees it differently. "The people saw the Americans firing on the gates of Saddam's palaces and then opening the doors to the people and saying: 'Come and take this stuff, it's yours now'. So they started, and it became a sort of rage as they attacked every government building. I don't make excuses but, you know, after 30 years of a regime like that, pressure builds up on people. Most of them were not educated, and to them the museum was just one more government building. They didn't just take antiquities but 95% of the office furniture, all computers, most of the cameras. My office was two feet deep in papers; my desk was broken into three pieces and I found my chair 100 yards away".

But there was another kind of robber. These knew just what they were after, ignoring fake statues and casts and going for the locked and barricaded storeroom. "We found glass-cutters and sets of keys. They got into the storerooms by a back route, through two steel doors and a brick wall. They clearly had a detailed plan of the building."

Exactly what they took is not yet known. But these were professionals with waiting customers, and the world's antiquities trade will soon be offered treasures from Uruk, Nimrud and Babylon. And yet George is hopeful. "I think the effort to stop this material getting on the market is far more effective than after 1991. No museum in the world would buy these things now. Only the private collectors are a danger."

George's connections with Britain and the great museums of the west go back a long way. He was born 52 years ago on the old RAF base at Habbaniyah, where his father worked as an accountant, and he finds nothing wrong with the presence of foreign archaeologists in Mesopotamia. He wears a smart German tie showing the dragon Mushusshu, pet of the god Marduk, whose effigy on the tiled Gates of Babylon is the pride of the Berlin collections. Did he think that the British Museum's mighty Assyrian hunting frieze should go back to Iraq? "Some people want it back. But I think we should see it as a very long-term loan to Britain, where many people can learn about the glory of Mesopotamia".

I ask about the feeling among some British archaeologists that Britain and America had lost the moral right to resume excavations in Iraq. He was shocked. "We have a heritage that belongs to all mankind, and the British and American expeditions have always shared in it. The British at Nineveh, the Americans at Nippur - these are our friends."

In the first days after the sacking, he and his staff went to the local mosques and asked the imams to appeal for the return of loot. "It worked! I got my computer printer back, and a good number of the Nimrud ivories, some of them gilded".

One day, two men who gave no names came and asked to see George alone. "They said that they were there during the looting, and had decided to take objects home for safe-keeping. "They would return them, they said, when things calmed down. Two days later, after the American tanks finally arrived to guard the museum, they came back to the gate. With them, broken in two pieces, was the statue of Shalmaneser III, a stone slab with cuneiform texts, two 6,000-year-old Sumerian reliefs and many portable objects.

"We never asked them who they were, or where they lived. But I want to say this: they are the real Iraqis!"

[Source: By Neal Ascherson, The Guardian, London, 01May03]

War in Iraq and Glabal State of exception

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This document has been published on 07apr03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.