An article by Ole Rothenborg, translated by Joe Valasek, in the April 11 issue of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest newspaper, interviewed Middle East expert Khaled Bayomi. Bayomi was surprised when the American soldier complained on TV that the U.S. doesn’t have the resources to stop the looting in Baghdad. “I happened to be right there just as the American troops encouraged people to begin the plundering,” he says.
Khaled Bayomi went to Baghdad to be a human shield and arrived on the same day the war began. He saw U.S. soldiers shoot “two Sudanese guards who stood at their postsoutside a local administration building?Arab interpreters in the tanks told the people to go and take what they wanted in the building. The word spread quickly and the building was ransacked?The next morning the plundering spread to the Modern Museum?”
His theory about why this was done? “The lack of jubilant scenes [on TV] meant that the American troops needed pictures of Iraqis who in different ways demonstratedhatred for Saddam’s regime.” It’s more likely that U.S. soldiers encouraged Iraqis to loot government buildings, but never intended for them to escalate to ransacking museums.
In the months before the war, archeologists and scholars urged the Defense Department to protect Iraq’s priceless archaeological heritage from looters, and warned them that the National Museum of Antiquities was the most important site in the country. McGuire Gibson, of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, says, “I thought I was given assurances that sites and museums would be protected.”
Besides the National Museum, Iraq also has 13 regional museums, as well as thousands of archaeological sites. “To the extent possible, and as soon as though it were yesterday, someone needs to post border guards to intercept antiquities as they try to leave the country,” says archaeologist and art historian John Russell, of the Massachusetts College of Art. “There is a smuggling network in Iraq, and there could have been professional thieves among the looters.” U.S. troops are now posted on Iraq’s border with Syria, watching for smuggled loot.
This kind of looting happened before, after the Gulf War in 1991. Allied forces avoided targeting Iraqi cultural sites during the bombing of Baghdad, although one attack put a shrapnel dent in the National Museum’s front door. At the end of the war, there was a looting rampage, with most of the stolen artifacts smuggled out of the country and sold. Artifacts from inadequately guarded sites continued to be dug up and hauled away during the 12 years between the Iraq wars.
Experts still aren’t sure exactly what was stolen from the National Museum. Russell says, “It’s going to be a matter of weeks or months before we’re going to be able to identify any particular thing.”
“There are thousands of unique items,” says archeologist Paul Zimansky. “If somebody walks off with those things, we’ll never see them again. It is a disaster of major proportions.”
During Saddam?s rule, a lot of the material in the museum remained unstudied and uncatalogued, so scholars may never know what’s missing. There were clay tablets in the museum’s basement that may contain the missing pieces of the Gilgamesh Epic, the earliest story of the Great Flood.
If our history is destroyed, then people are free to substitute their own dogma for the truth.
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