The looting of the Iraq Museum  was anticipated by many – yet the people who were in charge of the country seemed wholly unprepared for dealing with the situation.
The National (Abu Dhabi) 
Were there that many vases?
Last Updated: June 04. 2009 11:37AM UAE / June 4. 2009 7:37AM GMT
The remarkable fact about the looting of the Iraq Museum, Hugh Eakin writes, is not how little it was anticipated – but how much it was forewarned.
The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum
University of Chicago Press
In February, 2003, about a month before the invasion of Iraq, a former American diplomat quietly flew to Baghdad to meet with Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister. A Middle East hand who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, William R Polk was on an improbable mission: he was hoping to persuade the Baathist regime to remove the unparalleled collections of Baghdad’s Iraq Museum to Jordan for safekeeping. This was no mere whim. The heads of the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Oriental Institute of Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York were to co-sponsor the project; the Jordanians told Polk they were prepared to give the green light, pending Baghdad’s consent. The well-connected Polk had even secured private funding to cover the cost of packing and shipping the collection to Amman. With a US invasion now almost certain, however, the Iraqis had other things to worry about. The plan went nowhere.
In what can only be a cruel irony for Polk, more than a few of the Iraq Museum’s masterworks did end up in Jordan within months of his visit to Baghdad. Early last year, I was taken to a cavernous warehouse in East Amman that was stuffed from floor to ceiling with over a thousand Mesopotamian antiquities. It was an impressive chunk of Iraq’s ancient past, ranging from Old Babylonian tablets and Akkadian cylinder seals to Assyrian votive statues, Aramaic incantation bowls and Roman and Persian coins. Many of the pieces were still labelled with their Iraq Museum inventory numbers; an even larger number appeared to have been freshly looted from Iraqi soil. And since the warehouse only contained those objects that had been seized at the Jordanian border, the actual quantity of antiquities that had been smuggled into Jordan – and across Iraq’s other porous borders – stretched the imagination.
As we now know, on April 10, 2003 – exactly one day after Coalition forces had symbolically established control of Baghdad by tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein before a global television audience – the Iraq Museum was plundered. On that morning began an unchecked orgy of looting that, despite the presence of American troops nearby, lasted three days and resulted in the theft of some 15,000 objects, among them some of the most extraordinary remains of the early history of world civilisation. It was arguably the worst attack on a museum since the spoliation of European treasure houses by the Germans and Soviets in the Second World War. And despite a successful US-run amnesty programme that recovered a number of the most important artefacts in the summer of 2003, about half of the looted pieces – over 7,000 objects – have never been located.
Six years later, the Iraq Museum debacle stands as a key turning point in the opening phase of the Iraq war – a kind of loss of innocence, when even some of the invasion’s staunchest supporters first began to realise how disastrously unprepared Coalition forces were for the occupation of Iraq. With this shock has come a standard two-part explanation – reiterated in voluminous press accounts and numerous books – for why it happened. First, the Pentagon had made a blanket decision not to enforce martial law or do basic police work in Baghdad in the days immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein. But more important, no one in the Bush administration seemed to be aware of the museum’s importance: senior US commanders didn’t even know its location. Such was the level of ignorance about Iraq’s ancient heritage that Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about the looting, could say: “the images you are seeing on television… it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, ‘My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?’”
Yet as Polk’s ill-fated diplomacy makes clear, in the run-up to the invasion, many people – not only archaeologists and museum directors but also former US officials – had been deeply concerned about the threat to the Iraq Museum. Indeed, as Lawrence Rothfield shows in his new book, The Rape of Mesopotamia, what is remarkable about the looting was not how little it was anticipated, but rather how extraordinary and numerous were the attempts in late 2002 and early 2003 to warn American and British war planners. In recounting the little-known efforts of Polk and others to prevent the pillage, Rothfield, who is the director of a cultural policy institute at the University of Chicago, puts into play some critical – and until now largely ignored – questions about the role of cultural expertise in 21st century warfare.
What ethical responsibility do cultural institutions, scholars and archaeologists bear when governments adopt policies or take actions that may pose grave risks to world heritage – risks that they alone may be able to identity? What if the action in question is a controversial war of choice? And in view of such recent calamities as the destruction of the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, is a categorical position against involvement in military intervention a legitimate one?
These questions have no easy answers, and they are not directly addressed in Rothfield’s book. But his revelatory backstory of the Iraq Museum crisis suggests that what he calls the “peacetime” orientation of the American and British cultural establishment may be hopelessly ill-suited to countering the most pernicious threats to sites and monuments today.
It is a tale that begins not in Baghdad, but in the nether-reaches of Washington’s foreign policy bureaucracy. As early as November 2002, MacGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago with intimate knowledge of Iraq, wrote to Ryan Crocker – who would later become ambassador to Iraq, but was then an organiser of the State Department’s “Future of Iraq” planning group – with an urgent message about the vulnerability of the country’s ancient heritage. Gibson placed special emphasis on the Iraq Museum. “Even if the museum survives bombing, in the chaos of war it will probably suffer major looting,” Crocker was told.
Around the same moment, Rothfield recounts, a group of American museum officials and art world leaders led by Arthur Houghton, a seasoned former diplomat and museum curator, wrote a series of letters to senior Bush administration officials, urging them “to move quickly to establish security” for Iraqi “monuments, sites, and museums” in any future US military action in Iraq; the letters also called for the formation of a special task force to plan how this might be done. On November 29, 2002, the group followed up with an Op-Ed in the Washington Post warning of the grave threat posed to Iraq’s ancient heritage and designed, Rothfield suggests, “to ratchet up the pressure” on the US officials who had received the letters.
In fact, it was already well-known that Iraqi museums, along with other government institutions, had been plundered during the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in 1991 – attacks that should have immediately come under scrutiny in any serious effort to plan for a post-Saddam Iraq. But in case they did not, in January 2003, the Archaeological Institute of America – a leading professional body for archaeologists – sent a letter to the Pentagon, observing that:
“Following the 1991 Gulf War, archaeological sites and museums in Iraq were looted on a large scale, with stolen antiquities appearing on the art markets in Western Europe and the United States. We therefore call upon the appropriate governments to take reasonable actions to prevent such looting in the aftermath of war.”
In late January, these various appeals were supplemented by direct briefings with US Defense and State Department officials: on January 24, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for stability operations invited Arthur Houghton’s group, together with Gibson, the archaeologist, to the Pentagon to talk about Iraq’s cultural heritage. According to Rothfield, the participants “came away from the meeting with the impression that the Pentagon had agreed to take steps to protect the museum and sites from looting by Iraqis”. That afternoon, most of the same group met with Ryan Crocker at the State Department.
Nor did the matter end there. The Defense Intelligence Agency, the organisation within the Pentagon that had played such an important role in making the case for invading Iraq, enlisted Gibson to identify important cultural sites and museums. The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), the State Department agency responsible for planning the post-conflict stabilisation of Iraq, became involved as well. As the invasion got under way in late March – still a full two weeks before the Iraq Museum would be attacked by looters – ORHA sent Coalition headquarters a detailed list of sixteen “key Baghdad institutions” that “merit securing as soon as possible”.
“Had Gibson seen the list,” Rothfield writes, “he would have been very pleased”:
“The National Bank, where Gibson believed some of the museum’s treasures to be secreted, is first on the list, the museum second. The Ministry of Oil, which ultimately was guarded, is sixteenth. With a sense of urgency, the memo noted that the National Museum ‘contains literally thousands of priceless historical objects’ and predicted that ‘[it] will be a prime target for looters,’ who ‘should be arrested and detained.’ ‘Coalition forces must secure these facilities,’ the memo warned, ‘in order to prevent looting and the resulting irreparable loss of cultural treasures.’”
So what happened? It is one of the merits of Rothfield’s meticulous account that it shies away from a simple explanation. Instead, The Rape of Mesopotamia shows, again and again, how communications failed, how signals were missed, how mutual suspicion between archaeologists and museum officials prevented the formation of a more unified front for dealing with the byzantine Washington bureaucracy.
Within the Bush administration, Rothfield suggests, it was far from clear that, had the US Central Command drawn up clear plans to do so, the museum would have been protected. Following the looting, ORHA officials were told that the list of Baghdad institutions sent to Coalition commanders in late March “had not even been read”. And it was not until April 16, nearly a week after the galleries and storerooms were breached and following days of punishing international press coverage, that US troops got around to securing the museum compound. Worst of all, weeks and months later, looters continued to ransack sites all over southern Iraq, largely without any interference from American and British forces; the US itself set up a major military base at Babylon, causing wholly avoidable damage to Iraq’s most famous historic site.
Confronted with such details, one is tempted to regard the Iraq Museum disaster as but another example of the abysmal mismanagement of the whole Iraq conflict (although the book unfortunately leaves unexplored the thinking of senior US officials like the repeatedly-warned Crocker). But in showing how even prominent cultural actors were consigned to irrelevance, Rothfield suggests a more specific problem at work. In earlier epochs, expertise in art and archaeology, whether in British Mandate Iraq or among US forces fighting in Europe in the Second World War, was considered a vital dimension of both military strategy and postwar governance. Even today, countries like Italy and Iran have special paramilitary forces trained in heritage protection. (The Italian Carabinieri played a courageous and largely unheralded part in arresting looters during their deployment in Iraq’s Dhi Qar province.) In contrast, in the US and Britain, archaeologists, scholars and museum officials have long been divorced from the foreign policy and military arms of government. As a result they not only lacked real influence in Iraq; they were largely ill-equipped to deal with armed conflict in any case.
Since the looting of the Iraq Museum, the US government has begun taking steps of its own to avoid another disaster: some troops are now given basic training in ancient heritage before deployment, and last fall the US Senate quietly ratified the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
Of course, in an age of unmanned drones, bunker-busting bombs and unpredictable insurgencies, sceptics argue that these steps will have little effect on the conduct of war. For many archaeologists and curators today, the idea that cultural policy needs to be remilitarised is highly suspect. The introduction of Human Terrain Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan – part of a Pentagon programme to embed trained anthropologists in combat brigades – has alarmed academics. More dramatically, in July 2008, the World Archaeological Congress passed a resolution urging its members to deny the Pentagon any assistance in identifying ancient sites in Iran, on the grounds that it might “provide cultural credibility and respectability to… military action”.
Yet even rudimentary information-sharing can avert the unnecessary destruction of sites and monuments; until cultural institutions and universities confront the chasm that now exists between them and the military – and address the complicated ethical dilemmas warfare poses for cultural preservation – it is unlikely that the policy disaster Rothfield documents so well can be prevented from happening again.
Hugh Eakin has written about museums and the antiquities trade for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and The New York Times.