Rich past stripped as future in tatters
April 14 2003
They knew what they were looking for. It needed to sparkle in the light of the burning oil-soaked rags that the looters use to light the darkness as they continue to maraud in Baghdad.
But as they searched for ancient jewels from civilisations dating back millenniums, they utterly destroyed one of the world’s finest collections of antiquities, the Iraq National Museum.
It is a cultural catastrophe. Yesterday the museum’s exhibition halls and security vaults were a barren mess - display cases smashed, offices ransacked and floors littered with handwritten index cards recording the timeless detail of more than 170,000 rare items that were pilfered.
Worse, in their search for gold and gems, the looters gained access to the museum’s underground vaults, where they smashed the contents of the thousands of tin trunks in which curatorial staff had painstakingly packed priceless ceramics that tell the story of life from one civilisation to the next down through 9000 fabled years in Mesopotamia.
In tears of anger and frustration, Moysen Hassan, 56, an archaeologist, itemised the pieces he was certain were stolen: a solid gold harp from the Sumerian era, which began about 3360BC; a sculpted head of a woman from Uruk, one of the great Sumerian cities; gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings more than 4000 years old; and a rare collection of gold-trimmed ivory sculptures.
Too distraught to talk about the collection, he gave me a copy of the catalogue for The Grand Exhibition of Silk Road Civilisations, which toured the world in the late 1980s and for which the museum set aside its traditional reluctance to allow any of its treasure abroad.
All of the items that made it safely around the world and back to Baghdad have been looted.
They include centuries-old carvings of stone bulls, kings and princesses; shoes made of copper and cuneiform tablets; pieces of tapestries and ivory figurines of goddesses, women and Nubian porters; friezes of fighting soldiers and ancient seals and tablets on geometry; and ceramic jars and urns and bowls, all dating back at least 2000 years, some more than 5000 years.
“All gone, all gone,” he said. “All gone in two days.”
The looting of the museum, in the Karkh district of the inner city, tells the story of the anarchy that has beset Baghdad since the arrival here last Wednesday of United States-led forces.
Every public building has been raided by the mobs and most of them torched, sometimes accidentally because of the use of the oil-soaked rags for light. Hospitals have been reduced to empty shells, and Iraqis who care are infuriated by the loss and by the transmission to the world of the most appalling images of their society in greedy chaos.
The looters are a product of the regime that has shaped them - poorly educated, hungry for revenge after decades of oppression and unable to appreciate the damage they are doing to the country that is theirs.
The Americans have come here pursuing a military objective.
Now, when it is too late, they say they will confront the looters, although we have seen little sign of this; and that they will impose a curfew, as if that matters when most of the looting is done in broad daylight in a city that has become a patchwork of vigilante-patrolled no-go areas and a killing field for those bent on revenge against the individuals who made up the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Those who are hungry for power are asserting themselves with menace. The long oppressed Shiite majority, centred in the south, is taking control of a key area of Baghdad, the endless slums of Saddam City.
Aggressive and angry young Shiites, in the bearded garb of the mosques of Karbala and Najaf, have taken over the streets and the hospitals, imposing their own brand of law and order and issuing warnings such as this from Ahmed Mohammed, 27: "We thank George Bush, but if he stays here he is just another Saddam.
The Americans are becoming like Saddam. The two of them are exactly the same."
And Baghdadis are acutely aware that the marines threw a cordon around only one public building when they pulled into town: the high-rise headquarters of the Oil Ministry.
The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, brushes it all off: “Yes, it’s untidy; but freedom is untidy,” was his flip response to the mayhem. He needs to think again, because how the Iraqis read the conduct of the US forces in these early days will inform their acceptance of the US presence for years to come.
“The Americans have disappointed us all. This country won’t be operational for at least a year or two,” said Abbas Reta, 51, an engineer and father of five, who was among hundreds of Iraqi professionals who volunteered yesterday to help restore services.
“I’ve seen nothing new since Saddam’s fall. All that we have seen is looting. The Americans are responsible. One round from their guns and all the looting would have stopped.”
Nezar Ahmed, an electrical engineer, spoke for many when he said: “We’ve been wanting to kill Saddam Hussein for 20 years but we couldn’t. So we are grateful to the Americans, but they are letting thieves take everything from the Iraqi people. It is their responsibility to maintain security but they let the thieves do whatever they want.”
And as the tracks of another passing tank screeched on the Baghdad bitumen while its crew turned a blind eye to the looting, Fouad Abdullah Ahmed, 49, blurted: “The army of America is like Genghis Khan. America is not good and Saddam is not good. My people refused Saddam, and they will refuse the Americans.”
And in the crowd that gathered to protest near the Palestine Hotel there was an ominous warning for Mr Rumsfeld from the mouth of Raad Bahman Qasim, 30: “If this continues in Baghdad, we’ll kill any American or British soldier.”
The ransacking of the museum took two days - interrupted only for 30 minutes when pleading staff persuaded members of a marine tank unit to go to the museum and scare the looters with a few warning shots over their heads.
Abdul Rakhman, the museum’s 57-year-old live-in guard, was a gibbering wreck as he told of the arrival at the museum of a shouting crowd armed with axes and iron bars to smash the doors and display cases.
"They said there was no government; that everything belonged to them. There were women and children. They stuffed the pieces into bags and I couldn’t talk because there were too many of them.
“So I stayed in my room. They were yelling that there was no government and no state and that they would do whatever they liked.”
Just like Saddam Hussein, the guard admitted that in 10 years on the job he had never bothered to look at the museum’s displays. And now that there was no Saddam and no museum collection? “I’m a guard. I don’t bother myself with stuff like that.”
It did not matter that the looters were given a hand - the Fort Knox-like doors to the vaults must have been opened for them because they were unmarked. None of the museum staff was going to admit this, and the chances are - in this atmosphere of violence and fear - that whoever held the keys would have been slaughtered on the spot.
Another of the museum archaeologists, Raed Abdul Ridha Mohammed, 35, was one of the staff who raced to fetch the marines.
"I asked them to bring the tank into the museum grounds and protect what was left. They refused. And when they went away the crowd was back immediately, threatening to kill me and then to tell the Americans that I was a spy for Saddam Hussein. There was no way to protect myself or the collection, so I fled.
"But if a country has no record of its history it is nothing. If our civilisation is looted, then we don’t have a country. So I blame the US - George Bush promised us liberty, but this is not liberty.
“If we had stayed under Saddam Hussein we’d still have the collection.”
Then he escorted me through the vaults - where the aisles between the ceiling-high shelves were deep with smashed ceramics and the buckled trunks from which they had been dumped. The heads of the ancient Assyrian kings from Mosul lay chipped and broken; the ears had been broken off a stone lion from 3000BC to 2500BC; carvings from the early Christian ear in Hatra were in pieces; and relics from Nineveh had been thrown against the wall.
I came up out of the vaults, blinking in the sunlight, and into the Baghdad battlefield, and my thoughts turned to Washington and its battle plan.
The US-led forces invaded Iraq at a time of America’s choosing, but they arrived in Baghdad with insufficient boots on the ground to impose law and order in a city where pent-up anger and frustration were always going to erupt; or to protect the fabric of this society and the ancient ones that predate it.
A tank shell or a grenade had punctured the ceremonial gate to the museum grounds, and shop- fronts and homes around it were badly damaged.
Windows were smashed and masonry broken and blackened. Looters were still trundling out of the city, on roads littered with the debris of war as rubbish fires burned on the pavements.
As I drove back towards the Sheraton Hotel, I passed a bomb-flattened department store and the smouldering Foreign Affairs Ministry. As I drove on to the Synak bridge, over the Tigris, there was the unmistakable stench of death from wrecked cars that had been pushed to the side.
And as I crested the bridge, the bombed remains of the al-Rasheed international telephone exchange came into view - a high-rise tower filled with the wondrous technology of our civilisation that seems to teeter on warped and spindly concrete columns, which are all that survive of its mid-section after repeated bombing by the US - apparently because Saddam might make a phone call.
After witnessing three weeks of attacks on Baghdad and almost a week of looting - especially of the Iraq National Museum - questions about where the criminality lies become blurred.