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Oil and civilisation won’t mix
- Modern war machine stood frozen when history was pillaged

Standing by a column of belching fire and smoke at the wellhead in the South Rumaila oilfields here, I strive to be dispassionate like a reporter but a thought escapes. It flies across the Arabian desert and the Indian Ocean and nestles in a dimly-lit corridor in Jadavpur University, Calcutta.

For five years in the rooms along that corridor, between bunking classes and changing the world, a few men and women of diverse interests and differing politics, inculcated a respect for the past: Professors Sachindra Kumar Maity and Bela Lahiri, Shipra Sarkar and Anuradha Chanda and Kunal Chattopadhyay, Pranjal Kumar Bhattacharya and Bimal Kanti Ghose and Chittabrata Palit, Debaprasad Chattopadhyay and Amitabha Mukhopadhyay.

I do not know how many of them have been here — I suspect not many, but all would have wanted to. I was a student of history. I am in the land that was Mesopotamia. I know there are better reasons to visit Iraq than a war waged by Anglo-American forces.

But I am a journalist and there is no better reason to be here than the war. I am trying to get to Baghdad — about 700 km from here — driving through Mesopotamia as it were, and report. So far, I have not had the wherewithal. If and when I finally get there, I have promised to myself, I will make time to visit the museum despite the pressures of the assignment.

I have just learnt that the museum is destroyed. I am shattered and cannot hold myself back.

Meanwhile, in the oilfields here in south Iraq, there are engineers from American and Kuwaiti companies battling to save precious fuel. They have put out most of the fires allegedly lit by retreating Iraqi forces nearly a month ago. It is dangerous work. The wellheads can explode or the fires can change direction with a sudden gust of wind.

At Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only deep-water port, I have seen British and the American forces lug in heavy specialised equipment swiftly to make it functional. Trained dolphins de-mine its waters; contractors from the US have surveyed its berths and its oil terminals and its single gantry crane is being reinforced with heavy machinery and equipment and its workers have been paid their first week’s wages since the war began.

And on Saturday, in Baghdad, the archaeological museum was vandalised. Pieces of pots and paintings and artefacts littered the floor. Artefacts from 4,000 years of our history, from my history.

A friend has e-mailed Robert Fisk’s report on the museum carried in The Independent, London: “Our feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history, only to be destroyed when America came to ‘liberate’ the city. The Iraqis did it. They did it to their own history, physically destroying the evidence of their own nation’s thousands of years of civilisation….

“For well over 200 years, western and local archaeologists have gathered up the remnants of this centre of early civilisation from palaces, ziggurats and 3,000-year-old graves. Their tens of thousands of handwritten card index files often in English and in graceful 19th-century handwriting now lie strewn amid the broken statuary. I picked up a tiny shard. ‘Late 2nd century, no. 1680’ was written in pencil on the inside.”

The museum was ransacked, pillaged under the gaze of US troops in a land where civilisation was born. Yet, the men with big guns and gas masks and JDAMs and Abrams tanks and satellite-guide “precision bombs” from a country that is just 200 years old, a country that never had a king, watched as if frozen stiff.

Back in Kuwait, at the Coalition Land Forces Component Command, they tell us that every commander on the field knows his terrain. In Kuwait, they tell us journalists, the US troops have not had such a large civil affairs staff with an army ever before, staff that comprise historians and social scientists and aid workers.

At the end of one briefing, Lieutenant Colonel John Kuttas told me: “We do everything humanly possible that we can (to prevent damage to historical sites). We rely heavily on the use of precision munitions. There are instances of Saddam Hussein’s thugs taking advantage of our sensitivities. Every commander on the ground knows his terrain, is able to take split-second decisions. I do not accept that we represent the good intentions of the army but are unable to prevent damage.”

I wonder and marvel at the sophistication of the American military machine even if it was taking on medieval forces in Afghanistan and tinpot dictators in Iraq. Surely, such efficiency in “military targeting of cultural sites” must mean that most people, at least, were safe and civilian casualties will be at a minimum, thank heavens for American technology. Every inch of the battle zone is mapped, every square centimeter of the airspace above it is recorded, every bit of communication technology — cell phones, satellite phones, pagers, walkie-talkies — can be jammed or their messages intercepted.

Yet, none of that technology, none of the years of preparation for this war was able to check the pillaging of history.

How could the ransacking, the looting, the pillaging, the thievery not have been foreseen' We journalists — without the intelligence equipment at America’s disposal — saw it coming. We saw in Safwan, the first Iraqi town across the border from Kuwait, that the people are so desperate that they will kill to get a carton of food. In the absence of targets such as storehouses and granaries and markets, they turned on journalists themselves.

Iraqi money is worthless. The people carry wads of currency notes with Saddam Hussein’s watermark that are not even worth their weight.

Every time I have crossed into Iraq from Kuwait, from the moment that we step into the country, hungry Iraqi children scamper alongside vehicles pleading for anything, most of all for water. Their elders mob us, asking for telephones, and plot to keep us engaged in conversation while others try to steal our money and belongings.

In Safwan, the mob had to be fired at. In Umm Qasr, having done their bit for the benefit of television cameras, the crowd was getting into the mood. We left — by bus — before it got worse.

This is a land ravaged by war for the most part of two decades. Bomb after bomb after bomb, the absence of water in parched land, the ignominy of having a prosperous neighbour like Kuwait despite all its oil riches has made the Iraqi wildly desperate. In town after town ‘liberated’ by the ‘coalition’, anarchy and chaos have spread like an epidemic.

So, when Abrams tanks and US Marines stand by while the Baghdad museum is destroyed, it means that America has unleashed forces that it is unable to control.

Back in 1985, in a meeting with state department officials, Saddam Hussein told them: “You Americans, you treat the Third World in the way an Iraqi peasant treats his new bride. Three days of honeymoon, and then it is off to the fields.”

In Umm Qasr, I looked for an Iraqi peasant to find what he had to say about what was happening now. In the time I had, I could only find port workers. One, Abdul Hasin Manhal, 40, a man with two wives, told me: “Amrika come, Saddam go — very good. Now Amrika stay here and we go to Washington.”

I have not come here to stay. For the sake of my professors who know so much about Mesopotamia but not enough to protect its riches, just take me to Baghdad.

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