When Iraq’s now-vandalized national museum re-opened its doors in April 2000 after a gap of nine years, Saddam Hussein’s minister for culture, Humam Abdul Khaleq Abdul Ghafur, said with pride: “You can contrast our civilization with the uncivilized aggression against our people.” The minister was referring to sanctions on Iraq which were approaching a full decade and the bombing of the north and south of the country in what came to be known as the “no-fly zones”. As this columnist watched on European news channels the cultural equivalent of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution”, the destruction of Iraq’s heritage of antiquities, it was difficult not to recall the minister’s remarks.
One of the museum guards, Abdul Satar Abdul Jaber, lamented on French television that one American army tank and two soldiers at the premises would have scared off the looters. Squatting amidst the broken Sumerian and Assyrian treasures and sobbing, he said he had approached the marines and begged them to protect the museum’s treasures. In vain. Robert Fisk, who, like the former Le Monde correspondent and ambassador, Eric Rouleau, has dedicated his life to interpreting the Middle East to his readers, wrote in The Independent that he not only contacted the civil affairs unit of the American marines, but also told them where the museum was located. What he got was a reply from a captain that “we are probably going to get down there”.
Along with the neat and orderly vanishing act performed by Saddam Hussein’s entire government down to local Ba’ath party commanders in Baghdad, and the mystery of how the Iraqi capital fell without the much-touted resistance, the looting of the national museum, the best of its class in entire west Asia, without any interference from the Americans is a puzzle of the war which only history will probably answer.
For those who know America, that answer will be easy to grasp if retired General Jay Garner’s incoming interim American authority decided to open a McDonald’s outlet at the museum, now that it is bereft of its treasures. Saddam Hussein’s predecessor and cousin, Ahmad Hassan al Bakr, propelled Iraq in the Seventies, thanks to rising oil revenues, to the top of the list of world’s aid donors. By launching his disastrous wars, first against Iran and then against Kuwait, Saddam made his nation a basket-case and an international pariah. A luminous yellow arch of McDonald’s at the site of the plundered museum would be a telling sign that post-Saddam Iraq had returned to the community of “civilized” nations. The American defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, dismisses one of the greatest tragedies of human civilization after the fall of Baghdad as mere “untidiness”. In tones reminiscent of third-world dictators, who cannot put up with the free media, Rumsfeld found fault with reporters for writing that there was chaos and anarchy in Baghdad.
Unlike the largescale looting in several Iraqi cities as a result of the power-vacuum created by the Ba’athist capitulation, the vandalization of the national museum did not take either the Pentagon or the rest of the Bush administration by surprise. Two months before the war started, the Archaeological Institute of America urged “all governments” to protect Iraq’s cultural sites, including its 13 regional museums, archaeological sites in locations such as Babylon and, of course, the crown jewel of Iraqi antiquities, the national museum. Then, at the end of January, a group of museum curators, scholars and art collectors in America had meetings at the Pentagon in which the threat to Iraq’s cultural heritage during and after the war was discussed in detail. Iraq has always been a fertile ground for thieves and smugglers of antiquities. After the war for the liberation of Kuwait, when Saddam Hussein’s grip on power eased temporarily and he was distracted by the popular revolts in the Shi’ite south and the Kurdish north, plundering and smuggling of national treasures became rampant.
During the brief Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the precious Islamic exhibits at Kuwait’s national museum were carted away to Iraq. The collection at the Kuwait museum was the work of years by two members of the emirate’s royal family, Sheikh Nasser al Ahmed al Sabah and his wife, Sheikha Hussah al Salem al Sabah. They had loaned their collection to the national museum, which was plundered during the Iraqi invasion. Mercifully, much of the treasures have been recovered in the years since the end of the Iraqi occupation.
In Iraq itself, the theft and smuggling of the nation’s cultural heritage after protracted wars prompted the regime to impose severe restrictions on excavations at historic sites. All this was known to the Pentagon, made amply clear by the scholars and experts who discussed the problem with officials in January. Those who met with the Pentagon staff have acknowledged in the last two days that they have been bombarding those involved in war decisions in Washington with emails before and since the war began about the need to protect museums and excavation sites.
If the Americans have been turning a blind eye to all looting in Iraq, it would have been understandable. After all, soldiers are trained to fight the enemy and kill them, not to practise crowd control or to disperse a riot with minimum casualties. That was what P.V. Narasimha Rao once told an American official who was haranguing him about the record of the Indian army in Kashmir on human rights. The same yardstick ought to be applied to the US army which decimated Iraqi forces. But in this case, what is shocking and painful about the museum tragedy is that American forces in Baghdad have been selective in protecting buildings in the Iraqi capital.
That they protect the Palestine Hotel is only to be expected. It is the temporary home to the international media and the US army fulfils its new civilian role out of the hotel premises. It must be protected. But the Americans have also zealously ensured — unlike at the national museum — that looters had no opportunity to vandalize or plunder Iraq’s ministry of oil. So all of Iraq’s oil records are intact. They will be useful when oil production is to be stepped up or new reserves are to be tapped by American oil firms.
In one of the rare moments of candour on CNN since the war began, one of the network’s correspondents — of Arab origin — pointed out after the tragedy at the national museum that the Americans had enough troops to protect the oil-fields in Kirkuk. So much so they were patting themselves on the back during the weekend that oil production in Kirkuk could be resumed in a few weeks.
The American marines also made sure that no looter got anywhere near the ministry of interior, never mind the deep hatred shared by many Iraqis towards that ministry’s role in oppressing the people of Iraq. Intelligence information in Iraq’s possession — both internal and external — which is stored in the vaults and filing cabinets of the interior ministry is vital to the Americans if they are to rule Iraq, directly for the time being and later by proxy. So, orders went out that looters were to be prevented from entering the interior ministry.
An American diplomat who went to Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution to work under the Swiss flag — Switzerland looks afterAmerican interests in Cuba in the absence of diplomatic relations — told this columnist many years ago that on arrival in Havana he was taken to the former residence of the US ambassador. There, he saw that a gardener was tending the roses, paid for by the Cuban government ever since the American diplomats pulled out of Havana. There was not a speck of dust anywhere in the embassy residence: the staff was working as if the envoy was still there. And the butler was in attendance too.
But the biggest surprise was when the diplomat was driven to a garage on the sea-front where all the embassy cars had been neatly stored. The Cubans never appropriated them. Nor were they used. The only damage to the vehicles came from rust, having been stored in Havana’s saline weather. There was no vandalism of the kind that wrecked the German and Slovak embassies or the French cultural centre in Baghdad last week. Or take Iran, which George W Bush has picked to be part of the “axis of evil”. Although huge crowds swept through the streets of Teheran in the weeks before the Islamic revolution and following Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return from exile in Paris, nothing of national value was touched.
Even the relics of the Shah’s opulent lifestyle, the palaces, the treasures, everything is preserved. Teheran had no police to enforce order after the Shah left Iran. Had Iranians resorted to looting, the nascent Islamic guards of the revolution could not have prevented it: they neither had the equipment nor the training for such a job. If the world’s most powerful army could not stop in 2003 what an emerging Islamic state could prevent in 1979, there will be questions raised — about America’s motives and its intentions in Iraq. In fact, they are already being raised and the signals coming through are ones of unease.
By the way, it was mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this column that this columnist watched news about the vandalism in Baghdad’s national museum on European TV channels. Yes. Because America’s domestic TV mentioned the loss of Iraq’s most valued heritage only in passing.