Until August 2, 1990 — the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, thus precipitating the 12-nation response in 1991 known as Operation Desert Storm — Iraq's cultural property and cultural heritage resources (its museums, monuments, archives, religious sites and archaeological heritage) were among the most well managed in the world.
With a keen understanding of the region's 5,000-year history and a cadre of well-trained archaeologists — both Muslim and Christian, educated both abroad and at home, working at Iraq's universities, at the National Museum and at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage — archaeological research in Iraq had continued virtually uninterrupted from the early 20th century until the 1980s.
Antiquities laws in place since 1936 vested ownership of archaeological sites and artifacts in the nation and a vigorous enforcement system protecting a truly vast archaeological heritage (including some 12,500 registered sites and as many as 30,000 sites in total), there was remarkably little looting of museums or archaeological sites anywhere in Iraq, even during the unrest and privations caused by the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Under Saddam, who viewed the ancient past as an extension of his own pwoer, looting archaeological sites could result in the ultimate penalty: execution.
This situation changed dramatically, however, with the imposition UN-mandated economic sanctions that were imposed on Iraq in the aftermath of its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, followed by Operation Desert Storm.
Operation Desert Storm: Impact. By employing the most accurate munitions and aircraft available in the American arsenal to reduce the risk of collateral damage, and by contacting American archaeologists with experience in Iraq to develop a list of sites and locations that should not be targeted because of their historic value, remarkably little damage occurred as a direct result of American or coalition military action. Yet isolated incidents of collateral damage did occur.
An air attack on a weapons depot near Ctesphion caused serious cracks to develop in the 4th c. A.D. arch at Ctesiphon, the largest vaulted arch in the world created without a keystone centering device.
Tell al-Lahm, a 6th century BC site south of Ur that was likely a major center for the Chaldeans (11th dynasty Neo-Babylon dynasty) was partially razed by U.S. bulldozers to create firing positions. (This site has never been excavated extensively, and after the 1991 incident, it probably never will).
And, in the most often-cited example, brickwork was damaged on the famous ziggurat at Ur. Five large bomb craters were created around the ziggurat's tower, and some 400 holes appeared in a reconstructed wall of the tower — all collateral damage resulting from an attack on a nearby Iraqi air base that dated back to the British occupation in the early 1920s. Reports by British Museum curator John Curtis that the ziggurat was strafed by American machine gun fire received major media attention, but was never confirmed.
Direct military damage could have been much worse: as was later revealed in DoD reports, the Iraqis had parked two MIG-21 fighter jets at the entrance to the temple at Ur. But rather than take out the planes, as would have been allowed under the doctrine of military necessity, commanders decided by-pass the jets and not open fire, since reportedly the jets "were incapable of military operations from their position". Enormous potential for damage to UR was thus avoided — a classic example of cool judgment in the heat of the moment that protected irreplaceable cultural property.
Operation Desert Storm: Aftermath. During the planning, execution and aftermath of military action against Iraq in 1990-91, two series of events that war planners in 1990-91 barely noticed was already playing itself out in a way that would significantly impact the problems that future American and Coalition war planners and troops would face in the immediate aftermath of the April 2003 fall of Baghdad.
This sequence of events began, during Sept-Oct, 1990 with the removal by the Iraqis of many artworks, books and manuscripts and cultural objects from museums and private collections of Kuwait. At the time, Iraqi claimed that the action was necessary under the First Protocol of the Hague Convention as part of their obligation to protect the cultural objects in occupied territory.
Iraq ultimately returned most of the objects to Kuwait as a consequence of UN-imposed sanctions. But some of these objects, (a few hundred) were never returned and reportedly appeared on the international art market.
This was unsettling, but not surprising, given conditions in the art and market at that time. For in 1990-92, a significant re-assessment (and substantial increase in the value) of Mesopotamian antiquities was underway, courtesy of three monumental auction sales held at Sotheby's and Christies in London of the Erlenmeyer Collection in 1988, 1989 and 1992.
The ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals, stamp seals, cunieform tablets, amulets, manuscripts and other items collected by Erlenmeyer — all legally acquired in the 1920s and 1930s — increased the demand among collectors, musuems and dealers for more material of this kind — which the theft of antiquities from Kuwaiti collections apparently helped to satisfy.
The second series of events, which began prior to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, was the dispersal of objects from the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad to provincial regional museums. Some of this removal during the late 1980s may have occurred to create a regional museum system by distributing cultural objects throughout the country. The dispersion may have occurred to make room in the Iraq Museum for collections confiscated from Kuwait. Whatever the reason, the transfer of valuable antiquities from Baghdad to regional museums had significant unintended consequences.
Immediately following the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, coalition allies encouraged Kurds in the North and Shiites in the South to rise up against the Saddam Hussein regime. Some of those who did rebel turned their anger on the most immediate symbol of Saddam's tyranny: government buildings, including local museums. Ultimately, eleven of the thirteen regional museums across the country were ransacked, and more than 4,000 objects were stolen. Approximately 400 of these objects have been documented and approximately twenty-four were later identified on the art market.
These two incidents — the sale of artifacts stolen from Kuwait by the Iraqi government, and the looting and likely sale of artifacts from Iraqi regional museums by Iraqi citizens immediately after the conclusion of Desert Storm — did not attract much attention at the time from experts outside the cultural heritage field.
But those who did notice these events saw an unsettling convergence of factors that might have devastating consequences:
• The theft and sale of artifacts from Kuwait, and the
theft and sale of artifacts from Iraq's regional museums
occurred almost simultaneously after a long period
in which no Iraqi museums or archaeological sites had
been looted or damaged;
• Both incidents occurred at a time when the effect
of UN-mandated economic sanctions was causing
unemployment and hunger, forcing ordinary Iraqis to
do whatever was necessary to feed themselves —
• Many people noticed that these suddenly-unattended
Near Eastern antiquities in museums and archaeological
sites across Iraq were fetching record prices in the
international art market;
• The no-fly-zone, enforced by the U.S., limited Iraqi's
ability to conduct aerial surveillance over the southern
half of the country, where the largest concentration
of archaeological sites in the world is located;
• After Desert Storm, Iraq's archaeological sites were
largely unattended; foreign archaeologists were forbidden
by UN sanctions from working in the country and thus
forbidden to guard the sites with their presence; the
UK and US had vetoed the sending of a team of UNESCO speciallsts to assess the situation; even the
importation of photographic paper needed to document
the theft of artifacts from sites and museums and
report those thefts to authorities abroad was banned
under UN sanctions; thus, years would pass before the
evidence of theft from Iraqi sites could be recorded and
While each element in this list may have been understandable at the time when viewed in isolation, the combination of elements, and the ultimate impact these elements would have on the cultural property of Iraq, was predictable — it unleashed a torrent of archaeological site looting across south, where sites such as Umma, Umm al-Aqarib, Tell Shmid, Sifr, Isin, Nineveh and Nimrud, to name but a few, were significantly damaged.
Seemingly overnight, looting gangs composed of extended families and occasionally entire villages, set to work extracting antiquities from the ground and from standing monuments like a primitive mining operation. Smuggling networks developed to move looted artifacts as soon as they were dug up from sites such as Umma or Umm al-Aqarib, or cut from famous standing monuments at sites such as Nineveh and Nimrud, spiriting them from Iraq to art market capitals in the Middle East and Europe.
Iraq scholar John Malcolm Russell, a professor at Massachusetts College of Art, was among the first experts outside Iraq to notice what was happening. Now the resident Iraq antiquities expert at the U.S. State Department, Professor spent two years (1989-90) photographing and documenting the bas-relief sculptures and architecture at the palace of Assyrian king Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.), the "palace without rival" at Nineveh.
Not surprisingly, Professor Russell is the expert who is asked to view and comment upon all photos of Assyrian relief sculpture being sold by collectors, dealers or auction houses. And it was Professor Russell who first recognized looted bas-reliefs from Sennacherib's Palace, which began appearing on the art market in 1995. In total, Professor Russell has seen three Assyrian relief fragments being offered for sale in 1995 and another ten fragments in 1996, all but one of them from Sennacherib's Palace.
At the same time that Nineveh relief sculpture began appearing on the international art market, University of Buffalo professor Samuel Paley began to see bas-reliefs in the marketplace that had been looted from another famous site, the Central Palace of King Tiglathpileser III at Nimrud.
For more details, read "The Modern Sack of Nineveh and Numrud," by John M. Russell in Culture without Context, the journal of the Illicit Antiquiites Resaerch Centre.
Why did the looting of bas-reliefs suddenly break out in Iraq during the mid-1990s? Possibly one incentive was the July 6, 1994 auction sale at Christie's in London of a bas-relief from Room C of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud, a fragment that was discovered at the 19th century English manor house of Sir John Guest, one of the patrons (funders) of scholar Austin Henry Layard's first excavation of Nimrud. This one-meter-wide bas-relief from Nimrud, now at the Miho Museum in Japan, fetched nearly $12 million — a world record for a Near Eastern antiquity — powerful evidence of the danger that unprotected archaeological sites in Iraq now face.
To summarize: direct military and collateral damage during Operation Desert Storm was minimal (the result of careful pre-war planning, highly accurate weapons systems, and cool decision-making by field commanders during the campaign.
The most significant, and unintended, consequence or outcome during the aftermath of the Desert Storm campaign arose because of strict UN economic sanctions, which: (a) caused unemployment and deprivation among Iraqi citizens, causing some to turn to crime; (b) prevented the Iraqi military from effectively monitoring the south with its vast archaeological resources, by air; (c) restricted foreign specialists who wished to monitor and guard Iraq's archaeological sites; and (d) denied Iraqi archaeologists and authorities the basic tools, such as photographic paper, needed to document and report thefts from archaeological sites and museums to Interpol and law enforcement agencies worldwide.
These factors, plus thespiralling value of Near Eastern antiquities in world markets, gave rise to a class of antiquities looters that were like none the world had ever seen before.
Highly organized and specialized, knowledgeable about Iraq's archaeological heritage, and responsive to market demand, the looters and smugglers who devastated Iraq's cultural heritage between 1991 and 2003 set up distribution networks and relationships that extending from Iraq to Damascus, Geneva and London. The rapidly growing cadre of looters, mostly in the South, also instilled in other parts of Iraqi society, in the North, and in the cities, an impulse to loot that either did not exist during the Saddam era and in preceding decades, or had been successfully repressed.
Looting, and the general disrespect for law and order that it inspires, not only became a key factor in the destabilization and breakdown in civil order across Iraq between April 9th 2003 and the following fall and winter, the rampant looting of institutions and vital infrastructure set back any potential reconstruction effort in Iraq by years.
And, as we can now clearly see, the smuggling networks designed for transporting antiquities and other forms of contraband during the UN sanctions period, expanded over time and, after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, would be put to another use: smuggling anything that a rapidly growing insurgency might require.