| man with the golden gun: A US soldier holds a golden Kalashnikov engraved with an Arabic sentence that says “a gift from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein”. The Kalashnikov was found in a house near Saddam’s main palace in Baghdad. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 12 (Reuters): Looters sacked Baghdad’s antiquities museum, plundering treasures dating back thousands of years to the dawn of civilisation in Mesopotamia as American troops struggled to restore order.
Deputy director at the Iraqi National Museum Nabhal Amin could not hold back tears as she surveyed the littered glass wreckage of display cases and pottery shards. “They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquitiy dating back thousands of years...” she wept. “They were worth billions of dollars.”
The museum houses items from ancient Babylon and Nineveh, Sumerian statues, Assyrian reliefs and 5,000-year-old tablets bearing some of the earliest known writing.
Amin blamed US troops, in control of Baghdad since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s rule on Wednesday, for failing to heed appeals from museum staff to protect it from looters.
“The Americans were supposed to protect the museum. If they had just one tank and two soldiers nothing like this would have happened,” she said. “I hold the American troops responsible for what happened to this museum.”
Anarchy and violence also traumatised the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, seized almost unopposed by Kurdish fighters over the past 48 hours.
“If the Americans are liberating us, let them restore order because this has been as bad as any two days of my life with Saddam,” said Jassem Mohammed, a Turkmen butcher in Kirkuk.
US officials sought to play down the anarchy, saying it was an outpouring of passions pent up over 24 years of Saddam’s iron rule. “We believe that in due time this will settle down,” said Brigadier General Vincent Brooks at Central Command.
As cries of outrage at US inaction grew louder, American troops finally moved to bring about a semblance of control. US Marines set up round-the-clock patrols and said they planned to impose night curfew in certain neighbourhoods.
US troops are also guarding a main Baghdad water utility and a major hospital, the International Committee of the Red Cross said today.
“There are signs that the US forces are trying to make such contacts and take such action that will go in the direction of what we have been asking, which is securing vital infrastructure,” ICRC spokeswoman Antonella Notari said in Geneva.
The ICRC had urged American troops to help end the chaos that erupted after the Saddam administration’s collapse.
Policing apart, US military commanders remained focused on wrapping up the war. Amid calls from Unesco to both America and Britain to protect Iraq’s heritage, US bombers pounded positions around Saddam’s home base Tikrit, preparing the way for an eventual ground assault.
Initial elements of the 30,000-strong 4th Infantry Division moved into Iraq from Kuwait on way to Tikrit, where senior supporters of Saddam are believed to be preparing a last stand. But Brooks said that should US forces take Tikrit, it would not necessarily signal the end of the war in Iraq.
“Tikrit is not the only place where we believe there is a presence of regime forces or regime leaders or regime activities. So there would still be work to be done beyond that,” he told a daily briefing in Qatar.
US forces came under heavy automatic fire on the west bank of the Tigris in central Baghdad this evening. Reuters correspondents on the eastern side of the river, around the Palestine Hotel, said they heard heavy machinegun and tank fire by US forces across the river. The exchange lasted around 20 minutes, they said.
US Marine sergeant Daniel Finn said enemy fire had opened up on US troops from six bunkers on the western river bank. “We’re not sure how many of them there were, but they opened fire and now they’re dead,” he said, adding that he guessed there were 15-20 Iraqis or other nationals involved.