Looted Baghdad Museum
Treasures Feared Lost

By Niala Boodhoo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Antiquities experts, dismayed that U.S. officials failed to heed their warnings to protect Baghdad's historic artifacts during the war, said on Monday they were concerned the priceless treasures looted from Iraq's main museum may never be recovered.
U.S. archeological organizations and the U.N.'s cultural agency UNESCO said they had provided U.S. officials with information about Iraq's cultural heritage and archeological sites months before the war began.
University of Chicago professor McGuire Gibson was among a group that met Pentagon officials several times and presented them with a list of archeological and other sites that should be protected, particularly the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad.
"We warned them about looting at the very beginning," said the archeologist who has worked extensively in the region. "I was assured it would be secured."
Now, he said, the loss was immeasurable.
"The Baghdad museum is the equivalent of the Cairo Museum. It would be like having American soldiers 200 feet outside the Cairo museum watching people carry away treasures from King Tut's tomb or carting away mummies," said Gibson.
The museum, which housed key artifacts of ancient Mesopotamia, which was among the earliest civilizations, was ransacked and its contents taken or destroyed in a wave of looting that has swept the Iraqi capital since the collapse of President Saddam Hussein's rule last week.
UNESCO's deputy director, Mounir Bouchenaki, said on Monday leading archeologists will meet in Paris on Thursday to seek ways to rescue Iraq's cultural heritage. They also plan a fact-finding mission to Iraq.
Iraq's ancient dynasties, a cradle of civilization that existed long before the Egyptian, Greek or Roman empires, created the world's earliest forms of writings and built the first major cities of Nineveh, Nimrud and Babylon.
Gibson likened the museum's destruction to that of the famed library founded by Alexander the Great in Egypt that was destroyed more than two thousand years ago.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters the United States was concerned about the looting at the museum and was working to secure the facility.
"The United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general but this museum in particular," he said.
Powell said the U.S. would work with UNESCO, which earlier urged the U.S. and Britain to take immediate steps to protect and preserve a heritage considered to be "one of the richest in the world."
A 1954 Hague Convention mandates protection of cultural property during conflict, an international group of archeologists and antiquities experts warned before the war. While Iraq had ratified the convention, the United States and Britain, both partners in the war in Iraq, have not.
Of the more than 170,000 objects in the museum were treasures like an alabaster Uruk Vase that dates back to 3500 B.C., Gibson said.
The museum also held tablets of cuneiform writing that still had to be translated.
"We understand most of the best pieces are gone," said the Archeological Institute for America's Patty Gerstenblith, adding she heard looters cut off heads of larger statues that could not be moved.
Some items have already reportedly shown up for sale in Paris, Gibson said. Two markets for the items would exist: collectors willing to pay millions for the high-end items and others who would pay much less for smaller items like pottery.
"Average kind of pottery could well sell on (the Internet auction site) eBay for like $20 or $50," Gerstenblith said, adding small pieces have been smuggled out of Iraq during the U.S. economic embargo.
Experts are trying to set up a Web site to provide a catalog of what was in the museum in Baghdad and Gerstenblith said they were appealing to the White House to take emergency measures to order troops to be on the lookout for artifacts.
In the meantime, the loss of objects with not only historical and cultural, but scientific and religious value, was devastating, Gerstenblith, a DePaul University professor said:
"We have allowed to be destroyed not only our own heritage but the heritage of future generations."



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