Tuesday 17 June 2003

BBC and Guardian cover up US role in Iraq looting

Looting of archaeological sites and regional museums is continuing in Iraq despite the responsibility under international law of the US as the occupying power to protect cultural sites.

The journal Archaeology is documenting the extent of looting. Journalist Roger Atwood, who specialises in the antiquities trade and is in Mosul, reports that 30 bronze panels that once hung on a gate leading into the Assyrian city of Balawat have been stolen from the museum there along with numerous cuneiform tablets and 20 valuable books. At Hatra, a first century B.C. world heritage site to the south of Mosul, looters have hacked out a carved face from the apex of a stone archway.

Meanwhile in Baghdad some of the artefacts stored offsite for safety have been recovered and some of the stolen items have been returned to the city museum. Among those returned is the famous Warka vase, a 5,000-year-old ceremonial vessel from the city of Ur. According to the British Museum, which has two members of staff working in the Baghdad Museum, at least 28 items from the exhibition halls remain missing along with numerous less spectacular objects that have an important research value.

The major pieces that have been recovered are some of the artefacts from the Assyrian city of Nimrud and some material from the royal burials at Ur, which were stored in the vaults of the Central Bank at the time of the first Gulf War. The presence of this material in the bank vaults is not a revelation. A visiting Unesco delegation was told about it in May, but it was inaccessible because the vaults were flooded. Moreover, the recovery of these artefacts does not minimise the damage that has been done and is still being done by organised looting.

Despite the devastating losses that have been suffered and the continued looting, however, certain journalists have made it their business to assert that the extent of the problem has been exaggerated and even to claim that Iraqi archaeologists are responsible for stealing whatever is missing. This campaign of denial and disinformation can only compound the damage already done to Iraq’s cultural heritage. Not only will it distract from the task of tracking down the artefacts that are flooding onto the antiquities market, but it is also being used to discredit Iraqi archaeologists and to take control of the country’s history out of their hands.

The BBC is leading the way in this scurrilous campaign. In a prime-time documentary screened June 9, art and architectural historian Dan Cruikshank made a number of unsubstantiated claims. He suggested that the Baghdad Museum was a legitimate military target, that the looting was “an inside job” and that the staff were unsuitable to be left in charge of Iraq’s cultural heritage because they had been members of the Ba’ath Party.

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