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The Impact of War on
Iraq's Cultural Heritage

—Operation Desert
   Storm: Impact &
   Aftermath (1991-2003)

—Operation Iraqi
    Freedom: Impact &
    Aftermath (2003 -  )

"Stuff happens ... freedom is untidy."
— Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
               April 11, 2003

The immediate, near-term and long-term effect of Operation Iraqi Freedom on the cultural heritage of Iraq cannot be overstated. It also, in several respects, is not yet fully known, because ongoing problems such as site looting continues four and one-half years after the invasion, and the long-term effects of military action at Babylon, . But what we do know will provoke serious discussion in the years to come, offering many opportunities to learn lessons and adjust tactics, techniques and procedures to better address cultural property protection issues and optimize U.S. military performance in the future.


Outside observers of U.S. military planning in Iraq often focus on the apparent failure to protect Iraq's cultural heritage from every contingency, leaving it vulnerable to collateral damage or attack from looters and art thieves.

Questions have been raised about the possible lack of U.S. military preparation for what seemed like inevitable consequences of invasion (archaeological site looting, looting of the Iraq Museum, etc.) and the lack of military assets in Baghdad during the April 10-15, 2003 timeframe, which allowed the most high-profile events (the looting and burning of the Iraq National Library, the looting of the Iraq National Museum, etc. ) to continue over a period of days.

Questions have also been raised about the appropriate U.S. response to the proliferation of mosque bombings that began in 2003 and accelerated following the February 22, 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque and Shrine Complex in Samarra. The decision by adversaries to purposely target religious and cultural sites, and the potential for copy-cat destruction of cultural heritage sites as a mechanism to enflame opposing forces and demoralize the population at large — last seen during the campaign in the Balkans — became a factor in the Iraq campaign ... and a possibility that cannot be ignored in future situations no matter where they take place.

Other observers have questioned the Coalition's decision to dig trenches and construct facilities such as helipads at sites such as Babylon, build enhanced runways near the ancient site Ur, and maintain large encampments at sites such as Kish rather than build those same facilities adjacent to, or away from, these sites. At Kish, U.S. forces reportedly refused Iraq officials demands to inspect the site and has rreportedly not responded to Iraq's formal demand to to leave.

For facts about Babylon, see Milbry Polk and Anfgela Schuster, eds., The Looting of the Baghdad Museum: the Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia (2005), pp 214-216. Ur runway at information courtesy Professor John Malcom Russell. Kish information courtesy Professor Donny George Youkhana.

Little comment thus far has been made about U.S. missiles fired at, or in the very near vicinity of, cultural heritage sites and U.S. military usage of cultural sites for military purposes, probably because these examples are quite rare. They include:

      • bomb craters in the vicinity of, and machine gun fire and other collateral
        damage that apparently hit the side of the Ziggurat at Ur (present-day
        Tell Maqayyar); and

      • damage to the top of a tower at the Abu Hanifa Shrine by a U.S. rocket on
        April 11, 2003, an example of imperative military necessity given the
        minaret's panoramic view of the surrounding area and a nearby bridge,
        and the reported use of the minaret by an Iraqi sniper; and

      • the targeting of the Khulafah Al Rashid mosque in Falluja (the so-called
        "City of Mosques") on November 10, 2004 which CENTCOM reported was being
         actively used by insurgents during the waning days of the Falluja campaign.

      • the use of one of the world's most famous cultural heritage treasures — the
        spiral Minaret al-Malwiya at Samarra — as a sniper's post from September,
        2004 to March 2005, at which point, U.S. forces were ordered by the Iraq
        antiquities officials to vacate the area. A few days later, on April 1, 2005, insurgents
        bombed the top of the minaret in an apparent bid to prevent future use of that
        location by U.S. snipers. An explanation, possibly in response to specialists in
        the field who complained, was drafted by an attorney at the U.S. Army's Judge
        Adovocat General's Office.

These episodes provide an opportunity to craft new strategies and training methods to prevent or limit the exposure of cultural property and cultural heritage assets to damage in future conflicts.


Pre-Invasion Warnings and Complications (October 2002-March 2003). During the run-up to the invasion of March 2003, professional associations and individual scholars contacted civilian and military authorities in Washington, warning of the dangers to Iraq 's cultural heritage — the cradle of civilization, which includes some of the world's greatest cultural treasures and sites, extraordinary museums and libraries, as well as historic mosques and shrines, and hundreds of important archeological sites. Some of the world's leading scholars of archaeology, art and history warned of damage during military operations and especially the danger of post-war looting.

[See the news article: Donald MacLeod, “Scholars Move to Protect ‘Priceless' Iraqi Heritage” Guardian, March 21, 2003]


In January 2003, a delegation of scholars, museum directors, art collectors and antiquities dealers met with officials at the Pentagon to discuss the implications of the invasion. They warned that the National Museum in Baghdad was the most important non-religious cultural property site in the country. One member of the delegation, McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, twice returned to the Pentagon to discuss precautions the Coalition should take.

[Private conversation with Professor Gibson. See also Professor Gibson's “Cultural Tragedy in Iraq : A Report on the Looting of Museums, Archives, and Sites” in Art Loss in Iraq : An Update - Edited Proceedings: IFAR Evening (October 28, 2004)].

Professor Gibson provided the U.S. military planners and targeting specialists with more than 300 archaeological site names and UTM coordinates in the hope that these sites would not be damaged or targeted without an imperative military necessity.

Professor Gibson and his colleagues sent multiple e-mail reminders to military commanders in the weeks before the war began. [Private conversation with Professor Gibson] “I thought I was given assurances that sites and museums would be protected,” Gibson later remarked.

[See: See Guy Gugliotta, “Pentagon Was Told of Risk to Museums: US Urged to Save Iraq's Historic Artifacts” Washington Post, April 14, 2003]

As the conflict neared, the Archaeological Institute of America, the International Council of Museums, the International Committee of the Blue Shield and other professional organizations issued public warnings, reminding U.S. leaders of their responsibilities under international law, notably the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict. They urged that protection of Iraq 's cultural sites and institutions be a high priority for the occupying forces.

[See: “Concern for Cultural Heritage in Iraq” Archaeological Institute of America (December 18, 2002); also: Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), “Resolution Regarding War and the Destruction of Antiquities” Archeology Magazine (January/ February, 2003); also Guy Gugliotta, “Iraq War Could Put Ancient Treasures at Risk” Washington Post (March 3, 2003)]


Meanwhile, staff at Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and the Iraq National Museum prepared for the coming war by transporting moveable artifacts from the museum to safe storage and marking museums around the country with the blue shield symbol indicating that they were protected under the terms of The 1954 Hague Convention.

To summarize: significant steps were taken by academics and military planners to identify and locate sites in order to avoid targeting or causing needless collateral damage to archaeological or cultural sites during pre-invasion target planning. Given the extent of the air campaign, little substantial damage occurred to cultural property by U.S. forces during the first phase of the air campaign (March 21- early April, 2003) and during the high-speed ground campaign that culminated in the fall of the Saddam regime on April 9, 2003. The most significant losses began on April 10th, as outlined below.

Cultural Property and Archaeological Site Looting: Phase One (April - December, 2003). By all accounts available at present, Coalition troops that captured Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in early April 2003 did not act to protect cultural sites. They neither took up protective positions at major cultural sites in the cities and archaeological sites in the countryside, nor did they prevent acts of looting and destruction, even when asked to do so by concerned civilians.

Since the most important cultural institutions stood in two small areas of the city, military commanders could have taken steps similar to those used to safeguard Iraq 's Oil Ministry. U.S. soldiers on the scene reportedly said that orders prevented them from getting involved. The earliest measure to protect cultural property occurred on April 16, the placement of a tank in front of the National Museum, eight days after Coalition forces had seized Baghdad.

Reports of Coalition units refusing to protect cultural sites, even when located nearby can be found in: Nabil al-Tikriti, “Iraq Manuscript Collections, Archives & Libraries Situation Report” (June 8, 2003) [Oriental Institute, University of Chicago]

Attacks on the heritage sites began soon after the old regime collapsed, as part of widespread looting and destruction of government buildings and other targets. Archaeologists and Near East experts had warned that looting would begin as soon as public order broke down, just as it did in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, when several regional museums were looted.

Looters in Iraq appear to divide among several distinct groups, each with different motivations. Some were expressing their anger at the old regime. Others were neighborhood thieves, eager to take furniture, air conditioners or anything they could find. Others (such as those who burned the archives of the Saddam era stored in the National Library) appear to have had political or sectarian motivations. Some looters, particularly at the National Archives were professionals who targeted copper wiring, windows and doors. And by all the accounts the smallest group of all were the well-organized art thieves who worked methodically at the National Museum in Baghdad and regional museums, removing the heads of heavy stone statues with special saws and stealing only the most valuable works. The chief US investigator later surmised that professional thieves at the Iraq Museum during April 10-12, 2003, may have been fulfilling “orders” from international buyers.

See Colonel Matthew Bogdanos September 10, 2003 Pentagon Briefing and Matthew Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad (New York, 2005)

Even as news of the looting of the Iraq Museum reached the international media, Coalition military and civilian leaders still failed to act quickly. On April 11, when looting in Baghdad was at its peak, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly dismissed reports of cultural devastation as exaggerated [In a briefing the following day: "Stuff happens ... freedom is untidy."]. Meanwhile, as looting continued in Baghdad, three members of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee resigned in protest. “The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation's inaction,” Martin Sullivan, the committee's chairman, wrote in his letter of resignation.

Reported by Robert K McCartney, “Expert Thieves Took Artifacts, UNESCO Says” Washington Post (April 18, 2003). For e xamples of damage, see: Nabil al-Tikriti, “Iraq Manuscript Collections, Archives & Libraries Situation Report” (June 8, 2003) [Oriental Institute, University of Chicago ]


Losses to Archives and Libraries. The National Library in Baghdad suffered two fires – on April 10 and 12 – which badly damaged a major section at the front of the building. About one quarter of the total book collection was looted or burned, including rare books and newspapers. Fire consumed as much as 60% of the Ottoman and royal Hashemite documents, and nearly all government archives of more recent vintage went up in smoke. Virtually all the entire maps and photographs colelction was destroyed. Smoke damage engulfed other parts of the collection. Another institution, The National Manuscript Library, also sustained serious damage due to fire and looting, but librarians and local citizens managed to save its collections in a special bunker. Thieves pillaged and partially burned the manuscript collections of the Beit al-Hikma – the House of Science. At the Library of Religious Endowments, curators saved much of the manuscript collections, though more than 1,000 were stolen and more than 500 burned. A number of other Baghdad libraries suffered from looting: the Iraqi Academy of Sciences library, the al-Mustansiriya University Library; the Baghdad Medical College Library. The University of Baghdad 's College of Arts Library was burned. Meanwhile outside Baghdad, where Coalition protection of cultural property was also slim, cities such as Basra and Mosul also suffered damage: the Central Library of the University of Basra lost 70% of its collection to fire; one-third of the Mosul University central library was stolen by looters.

For an assessment of National Library damage, see Saad Eskander, “The Tale of Iraq's ‘ Cemetery of Books '” Information Today (December 2004). See also May-Jane Deeb, et al, “The Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of State Mission to Baghdad : Report on the National Library and the House of Manuscripts” (October 27-November 3, 2003). See also Jeffrey B. Spurr, “Indispensable yet Vulnerable: The Library in Dangerous Times, Preface to a Report on the Condition of Iraqi libraries and Efforts to provide assistance to them” Middle East Librarians Association, Iraq Crisis website (May, 2005), pp 16-18, 28-32.


Losses to Museums, Damage to Historic Buildings.  LThe looting, investigation and recovery of works stolen from the Iraq Museum is now well understood. Looters struck the Museum in three waves, between April 10 and 12, totally unhindered. Thieves took 14-15,000 objects of every kind, (sculpture, ceramics, pottery shards, jewelry, metalwork, architectural fragments, cuneiform tablets and a large percentage of the Museum's collection of valuable Sumerian cylindrical seals. The high number of artifacts stolen was due in part to the method of counting: individual pot sherds, and even individual beads, often counted as individual pieces. The Museum lost most of its card catalogue and computer files, including many unique records of archaeological digs dazting back several decades. Of the 40 most important objects taken, the famous alabaster “Warka Lady” (3100 BC), "Warka Vase" (3200 B.C.) and the King Entemena of Lagash (2450 BC) were stolen but subsequently recovered because of diligent recovery efforts on the ground, a general amnesty announced by Coalition investigators for those williing to return stolen items, as well as police action. The most important collection not stolen from the Museum were ancient coins, including many unique specimens, stored in a safe in the basement (thieves did try to steal the coins but failed). Fortunately, Iraq Museum curators had transferred many objects in the collection to safe storage prior to the war; these were mostly intact.

Some sources indicate that a U.S. tank did approach the Iraq Museum on April 13th, after which no more looting at that location took place. But the premises were not secured by U.S. forces until April 16. The investigation and recovery effort that followed has since recovered approximately half of items stolen and a large percentage of the most important pieces. The most important still-missing item from the Museum is the Assyrian ivory "Lioness Attacking a Nubian" (8th c. BC).

Meanwhile, to the north, looters stole hundreds of objects from the Mosul Museum, including sixteen bronze Assyrian door panels from the city gates of Balawat (9th century BC), as well as reliefs and clay cuneiform tablets from Nineveh and Nimrud.

See McGuire Gibson, “Cultural Tragedy in Iraq : A Report on the Looting of Museums, Archives, and Sites” in Art Loss in Iraq : An Update - Edited Proceedings: International Foundation for Art Research (October 28, 2004). See also Milbry Park and Angela M H Schuster, The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia ( New York : Harry N. Abrams, 2005). See also Colonel Matthew Bogdanos September 10, 2003 Pentagon Briefing and Matthew Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad (New York, 2005)

For reference to the Mosul Museum episode, see Mark Fisher, “Tomb Raiders” Guardian (January 19 , 2006)


As looting and damage to major institutions in Baghdad subsided around April 13-15, 2003, destruction to regional and provincial cultural properties, such as the Mosul Museum, continued intermittently until mid- to late June. Affected sites included the 12th century Abbasid Palace, and the 14th century Madrasa al-Mustansiriya, the 16th century Saray Mosque. Some were set on fire, others were looted of contents and architectural details. Portions of the Ottoman Qishla (barracks complex) in Baghdad were dismantled brick by brick. No explanation for the delay in stopping this type of anarchy promptly has been forthcoming, except for the obvious: insufficient boots on the ground, too little equipment and slow recognition that a fire had developed among the local population that would not easily extinguish itself.

For details of April-July looting and damage in Baghdad, see International Committee of the Blue Cross, Heritage at Risk 2004/2005 , Chapter on Iraq , p. 120


Looting of Archaeological Sites: Post-2003 Invasion. Iraq 's archaeological sites include more than 150 ancient Sumerian cities and towns as well as the later capitals of Babylon, Nimrud and Nineveh. In total, more than 12,000 sites exist in the country. Scholars had pointed out to Coalition authorities the value of these sites; that looting them destroys the very basis for our understanding of ancient history, by destroying the archaeological record, which can only be understood by careful excavation and record keeping by professional archaeologists.

See Susan Breitkopf, “Lost: The Looting of Iraq's Antiquities,” Museum News , American Association of Museums (January/February, 2007)

Initially, the Coalition provided these sites with almost no meaningful protection, allowing looters free reign to dig particularly in the South, as Professor MacGuire Gibson and other experts reported in May, 2003 after surveying Umma, Larsa, and a dozen other locations by military helicopter. In October 2003, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos noted that although the CPA had hired 1,675 Iraqi guards to protect 3,000 sites “they are inadequately trained and equipped,” and they “have little formal security training, communications assets or vehicles.” One month later, Dr. John Malcolm Russell, a CPA cultural advisor, concluded that for the Coalition “the protection of archaeological sites is not a priority.”

Bogdanos quote and Russll quote at "Heritage Lost: looting of archeological sites continues in Iraq"


Such was not the case in the South where the Italian carabinieri made efforts to patrol sites with 300 well-trained and -equipped soliders. That effort began to scale back, however, after the November 12, 2003 truck bombing of the carabinieri headquarters at Nasiriyah. Over time, looters have become increasingly organized, hiring hundreds of people to dig, often providing free bus transportation to and from the sites. Iraq government funds to pay site guards became exahusted in mid-2006.

In September 2006, McGuire Gibson told The Washington Post “There has been looting of sites on an industrial scale. Some of the greatest Sumerian sites have gone.” More than a year earlier, as thousands of seized artifacts were piling up in police warehouses in Jordan and much more was reaching world markets, the World Monuments Fund concluded that Iraq 's sites “are being ravaged by looters who work day and night to fuel an international art market hungry for antiquities” and Iraqi officials had confirmed that antiquities looting and smuggling was indeed funding the insurgency.

Given the Iraq insurgency's apparent easy access to funds and resilient means of smuggling almost anything, U.S. war planners and trainers may want to analyze the role that industrial-scale cultural property theft has played in funding and arming the insurgents.

See Susan Breitkopf, “Lost: The Looting of Iraq's Antiquities,” Museum News , American Association of Museums (January/February, 2007). For Gibson quote, see Sumedha Senanayake, "Iraq : Antiquities Continue to be Pillaged, Destroyed” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (October 12, 2006). For World Monuments Fund quote, Iraqi officials' quotes and many revealing details, see Stephen Farrell and Rana Sabbagh-Gargour, “For Sale: A Nation's Treasures” Times, London (July 2, 2005)

Damage to Cultural Property by Coalition Forces. While the cultural damage (looting and intentional destruction by civilians) caused by Coalition inaction may be greater in scope, damage to important cultural sites caused by misguided Coalition action is no less significant.

Significant collateral damage occurred as a direct result of insurgents umaking first military use of protected cultural property. Examples include the central area of the holy city of Najaf, destroyed in a confrontation of Coalition forces with Mahdi Army irregulars in August, 2004; coalition bombardment whcih destroyed 65 mosques in the attack on Falluja in November 2004; and Coalition aerial and ground attacks that reduced cultural properties in Tal Afar, Ramadi, Samarra and a number of other cities to rubble. All of these actions involved imperative military necessity with no logical or feasible alternative.

Elsewhere, serious damage occurred to important archeological sites, such as ancient Babylon and Ur — two of the most important ancient sites in the world — where the US military built bases, installed fuel tanks and concrete walls, dug a dozen deep trenches, used heavy earth-moving equipment to build a helicopter landing pad, and dropped tons of gravel next to a Greek theatre built for Alexander the Great to create parking lots for military vehicles. In September 2003, U.S. forces handed authority over Babylon (known as Camp Alpha) to Polish troops who camped there until January 2005, when authority for the site reverted to the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

[See Mark Fisher, “Tomb Raiders” Guardian (January 19 , 2006)]


While preparing a report on the Babylon incident, Dr. John Curtis, Keeper of the British Museum 's Near East Department, found military fortification sandbags shoveled full of archaeological material from the site, including shards, bones, and ancient bricks. Parts of ancient buildings had collapsed. Polish troops apologized for their role in the damage.

[See John Curtis, “Report on Meeting at Babylon 11-13th December, 2004” British Museum (2005). See also Joanne Farchakh Bejjaly, “History Lost in Dust of War-Torn Iraq” BBC (April 25, 2005) and Rory McCarthy and Maev Kennedy, “Babylon Wrecked by War” Guardian (January 15, 2005). “ Poland Apologizes for Damage Troops Inflicted on Babylon ” History News Network (August 3, 2005)]


Cultural Neglect and Lack of Protection During the Occupation. During the early days of the occupation, in response to public criticism of the looting, the US and UK governments took steps to recover objects stolen from the National Museum, restore damage to the National Library and revive the culture of Iraq with assistance from the State Department, USAID, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as the DoD, the FBI and the US Customs Service.

Washington sent FBI agents and customs officers to Baghdad to track down the lost National Museum objects. US Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos took charge of a recovery campaign, beginning in the local neighborhood. Meanwhile Iraqi clerics, having denounced cultural thievery, make public declarations that stolen objects be returned. An international effort eventually recovered, repurchased or seized in customs more than five thousand objects. In October 2003, however, after just six months of work, commanders reassigned Bogdanos and the hunt for museum objects soon lost momentum.

See Mark Rose, “A Conversation with Matthew F. Bogdanos” Archaeology Magazine (October 16, 2003); Mary Wiltenburg, “‘Pit Bull' Dogs Iraq Looters” Christian Science Monitor (February 20, 2004)


During the early days of the occupation, the Coalition Provisional Authority appointed special advisors on cultural matters, but funding consistently fell short. For example, John Agresto, the new CPA higher education chief, asked for an allocation of $1.2 billion to revive Iraq's universities, but was authorized only $9 million in the 2004 budget. When Agresto departed Iraq in 2005, he was not replaced. The same fate befell the CPA's Senior Consultant for Culture, René Teijgeler, whose portfolio that included libraries and museums. The CPA budgeted so little money, that Teijgeler left his post in 2005 and was not replaced.

During a special mission to Baghdad in October, 2003, the Library of Congress proposed an expansive plan for a new National Library, as well as a training program for Iraqi librarians, headquartered in a modern building by the Tigris that had been the Senior Officers' Club during the Saddam era. The CPA applauded the idea, but later signed away the Officers' Club for another purpose, causing the promised US assistance to restore the National Library to dry up. During 2004, the CPA alloted the National Library — an institution with no electricity, no water, no pens, paper or furniture — an annual budget of $70,000 to o cover all expenses, including repairs and the purchase of new furniture and equipment.

[See Mary-Jane Deeb, et al, “Report on the National Library and the House of Manuscripts” Library of Congress (November, 2003)]


USAID launched five projects in 2003 to support Iraqi libraries, museums and antiquities programs. American and European universities signed up to help train librarians and museum staff, promote legal research, organize online scholarly resources and otehr projects. But USAID failed to fund beyond the first year and the programs mostly collapsed. By 2004, under Ambassador John Negroponte, priorities shifted from rebuilding cultural institutions to security as the insurgency — which had been funded during its initial rise by the looting and sale of illicit antiquities from Iraq's museums and archaeologial sites — began to accelerate.


The immediate, near-term and long-term effect of Operation Iraqi Freedom on the cultural heritage of Iraq cannot be overstated. It also, in several respects, is not yet fully known, because ongoing problems such as site looting continues four and one-half years after the invasion, and the long-term effects of military action at Babylon, . But what we do know will provoke serious discussion in the years to come, offering many opportunities to learn lessons and adjust tactics, techniques and procedures to better address cultural property protection issues and optimize U.S. military performance in the future.