If any doubt remained as to the American government’s total disregard for the civilians and culture of Iraq, the events of last week settled all uncertainty. During the course of three days, the military forces of the United States stood idly by and watched as 170,000 artifacts were stolen from the National Museum of Antiquities, considered by archaeologists to be among the top 10 museums in the world. The National Library and the Ministry for Religious Affairs, which also contained countless pieces of irreplaceable world history, burned to the ground.
Repercussions are already being felt around the world. Last Thursday, the chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property resigned, calling the looting “wanton and preventable.” Many agree with him — archaeologists have already begun asserting that these American actions are war crimes under the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property of 1954. In part, the convention states that signatory nations should “prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of” cultural property, including if one country is occupying another. Other sections of the convention state that nations should guard against “foreseeable effects of an armed conflict.”
Was the looting foreseeable? Immediately after the first Gulf War, nine of 13 regional museums of Iraq were looted, setting a clear precedent that such actions could also be expected this time.
Furthermore, the looting was not one lightning strike of chaos — it took three full days for the museum to be ransacked. The library and ministry were not burning until a full two days after the looting of the museum began.
American troops actually showed up at the museum briefly on the first day with a few tanks, and the looters fled. The tanks only stayed, however, for about 30 minutes, then departed, ignoring the pleas of archaeologist Raeed Abdul Reda to stay and protect the artifacts. Then the pillaging began anew; Iraqis in the area reported that American troops were so close that patrols saw looters actually running down the street with priceless artifacts in their arms and did nothing to stop them.
The administration of the honorable President George W. Bush knew of the museum’s importance, and of the threat of looting. The building, along with a number of archaeologically significant sites yet to be excavated, was placed on a “No Strike” list drawn up by the Pentagon before bombing started.
Yet, even now, no guards or military support have been placed at the museum to protect the remnants of its once-great collection.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reacted angrily when asked about the museum’s destruction in a press conference, saying that the United States did not let the looting happen. American troops, however, were stationed to protect certain Iraqi buildings; the National Ministry of Oil has American guards outside. And U.S. strength is apparently so great in the area that, during the time the museum was being looted, a group of soldiers were busy chipping a “disrespectful” mural of the first President Bush off the floor of the Al-Rashid Hotel.
The loss to global archaeology and to human culture is stupefying. The absolute disregard for the cultural heritage of the entire Middle East is yet another shameful act by an administration whose head probably thinks the Fertile Crescent is found in a French bakery.
And the priorities demonstrated — protecting oil wealth and his daddy’s reputation while abandoning artifacts that have kept human history alive over the past 8,000 years — show the true contempt that Bush and his cronies have for the people of Iraq. Rummy and Dummy care nothing about art or history, except as investments or as evidence of riches.
This is no liberation — it is a business opportunity.