| A picture dated 29 April, 2000, shows Iraqi women looking at Assyrian artifacts dating back to 2,800 BC at Baghdad’s museum. (AFP)
Washington, April 18 (Reuters): Two cultural advisers to the Bush administration have resigned in protest over the failure of US forces to prevent the wholesale looting of priceless treasures from Baghdad’s antiquities museum.
Martin Sullivan, who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years, and panel member Gary Vikan said they resigned because the US military had had advance warning of the danger to Iraq’s historical treasures.
“We certainly know the value of oil but we certainly don’t know the value of historical artifacts,” Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, said yesterday.
At the start of the US-led campaign against Iraq, military forces quickly secured valuable oil fields. Baghdad’s museums, galleries and libraries are empty shells, destroyed in a wave of looting that erupted as US-led forces ended Saddam Hussein’s rule last week, although antiquities experts have said they were given assurances months ago from US military planners that Iraq’s historic artifacts and sites would be protected by occupying forces.
“It didn’t have to happen,” Sullivan said. “In a pre-emptive war that’s the kind of thing you should have planned for.” Sullivan sent his letter of resignation earlier this week.
The Iraqi National Museum held rare artifacts documenting the development of mankind in ancient Mesopotamia, one of the world’s earliest civilisations. Among the museum collection were more than 80,000 cuneiform tablets, some of which had yet to be translated.
Professional art thieves may have been behind some of the looting, said leading archaeologists gathered in Paris yesterday to seek ways to rescue Iraq’s cultural heritage.
Among the priceless treasures missing are the 5,000-year-old Vase of Uruk and the Harp of Ur. The bronze Statue of Basitki from the Akkadian kingdom is also gone, somehow hauled out of the museum despite its huge weight.
The White House repeated yesterday that the looting was unfortunate but the US military had worked hard to preserve the infrastructure of Iraq.
“It is unfortunate that there was looting and damage done to the museum and we have offered rewards, as secretary Rumsfeld has said, for individuals who may have taken items from the museum to bring those back,” White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said in Crawford, Texas, where President George W. Bush is spending a long Easter break.
FBI director Robert Mueller added that the bureau was sending agents to Iraq to assist with criminal investigations and had issued Interpol alerts to all member nations regarding the potential sale of stolen artifacts.
“We recognise the importance of these treasures to the Iraqi people and as well to the world as a whole,” Mueller said. “And we are firmly committed to doing whatever we can in order to secure the return of these treasures to the people of Iraq.”
The President appoints the 11-member advisory committee, which works through the US state department to advise the executive office on the 1970 Unesco Convention on international protection of cultural objects.
The Washington Post adds: Well-organised professional thieves stole most of the priceless artifacts looted from Baghdad’s National Museum of Antiquities last week, and they may have had inside help from low-level museum employees, the head of Unesco said yesterday.
Thousands of objects were lost at the museum, both to the sophisticated burglars and to mob looting, Koichiro Matsuura, director general of Unesco, said in an interview. “Most of it was well-planned looting by professionals,” he said.
“They stole these cultural goods to make profits.”
Museum officials in Baghdad told Unesco that one group of thieves had keys to an underground vault where the most valuable artifacts were stored. The thefts were probably the work of international gangs who hired Iraqis for the job, and who have been active in recent years doing illegal excavations at Iraqi archaeological digs, according to archaeological experts working with Unesco.
Matsuura said top museum officials tried to protect the institution, but the thieves may have succeeded in paying off guards or other low-ranking personnel. He said he doesn’t blame the US military, even though Unesco had urged the US government before the war to safeguard it and other cultural sites.
“If I were to blame somebody, it would be those armed bandits who looted their own cultural treasury,” Matsuura said. The museum was assaulted during “a power vacuum” following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government, and “anything could happen in such confusion and turmoil,” he said.
Artifacts lost at the museum include vases, statues, gold jewellry and clay tablets that are the earliest examples of writing. The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute has already listed between 2,000 and 3,000 lost objects in a database, according to institute professor McGuire Gibson, who is one of the specialists advising Unesco.
“The most important, best material” was taken by professionals who “knew what they were doing,” Gibson said. “Then mobs came in and just marauded.” Gibson said the thieves broke heads off some statues, apparently to make it easier to carry them away. He was more critical of the US military than the Unesco chief. Noting that US troops protected the oil ministry and Prime Minister’s office, Gibson said, “other things were given a higher priority” than cultural sites. He said any further destruction would be “completely inexcusable.”
Some of the stolen artifacts are so well known that no collector would dare let it be known that he or she had them. One is the alabaster Uruk Vase, with pictures of grain, sheep, goats and priests dating from about 3500 BC.
It is pictured in many introductory art history books.