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Iraq Cultural Property Law, 2002
The Impact of War on Iraq's Cultural Heritage

— Operation Desert
             Storm: Impact and              Aftermath

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







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Until August 2, 1990 — the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, thus precipating 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 (numbering some 10,000 sites), 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 power, looting archaeological sites could result in the ultimate penalty: execution.

This situation changed dramatically, however, with the imposition of 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, remarkbly 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 B.C. 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 were 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 to 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 antiquities 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 inthe 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 convergance 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 simultaenously 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 —
      including crime;
   • Many people noticed that these suddenly-unattended
      Near Eastern antiquities in 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 specialists 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 the 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 mocuments 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 Russell 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 viw and comment upon all photos of Assyrian reliefs 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 reliefs 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 Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

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 the spiralling 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 archaeolgoical 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 extended from Iraq to Damascus, Geneva and London. The rapidly growing cadre of looters, mostly in the South, also instilled in other parts of Iraq 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 destablization and ungovernability of Iraq between April 9th and the fall and winter of 2003, the wholesale 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.


The immediate, near-term and long-term effect of Operation Iraqi Freedom on the cultural heritage of Iraq cannot be overstated. The impact is also not fully known, because ongoing problems such as site looting and the long-term effects of military action at Babylon still continue more seven years after the 2003 invasion.

What we do know about the effect of armed conflict on the cultural heritage of Iraq has provoked serious discussion, offering many opportunities to learn lessons and adjust tactics and procedures to optimize U.S. military performance and better protect cultural property in the future.

Outside observers of U.S. military planning in Iraq often focus on the apparent failure to protect, leaving cultural property 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 consequences that seemed inevitable in retrospect (looting of archaeological sites, burning of the National Library, looting of the Iraq Museum, etc.), insufficient command and control and insufficient manpower and equipment in Baghdad during the critical April 10-15, 2003 timeframe, which allowed the the looting of the Iraq Museum and other high-profile events to continue over a period of days during the final days of combat as the city and the country fell.

Questions have also been raised with respect to the proliferation of mosque bombing, which 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 former Yugoslavia, but perpertrated on a much larger scale in Iraq — became a factor in Coalition military strategy. The possibility of a repeat of this scenario in future conflicts cannot be ignored.

Other observers have questioned the Coalition's decision to dig trenches and construct helipads at sites such as Babylon, or build enhanced runways near the ancient site of Ur, or maintain large encampments at sites such as Kish rather than build those same facilities adjacent to or some distance away from these fabled sites.

For facts about Babylon, see Milbry Polk and Angela Schuster, eds., The Looting of the Baghdaqd Museum: the Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia (2005), pp 214-216.

Little comment thus far has been made about U.S. missiles fired at, or near, cultural heritage sites or first military use of cultural sites by U.S. forces, because such incidents were extremely 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
 by a U.S. rocket on April 11, 2003, apparently
         an example of imperative military necessity given the
         minaret's panoramic view of the surrounding area
         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 Adovocate General's Office.

By analyzing these episodes, new strategies and training methods may be developed to limit or prevent unnecessary 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 in March 2003, professional associations and individual scholars contacted civilian and military authorities in Washington, warning of the dangers to Iraq's cultural heritage. 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," in The 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 Baghdad 's National Museum was the single most important 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 with hundreds of archaeological site names and locations (UTM coordinates, one hundred of which have been reviewed during the preparation of this resource) 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: U.S. 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 Property 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: “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.

What Iraq museum staff and cultural heritage preservationists did not know: the Iraqi military, in 2002 and 2003, was also placing blue shield symbols on military installations, such as the Salman Pak facility (see blue shield symbol in Australian DoD satellite photos taken in 03/2003); meanwhile no blue shield symbol could be seen on the nearby Arch at Ctesiphon, a premier cultural heritage site, before the invasion, nor does any blue shield symbol appear at Ctesiphon even today. The same is true across much of Iraq and Afghanistan. This casual use, and intentional mis-use, of the blue shield symbol presents a problem should war planners may need to address in the future.

To summarize: steps were taken 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.

Archaeological Site Looting: Phase One (April - December, 2003). By all accounts available at present, Coalition Forces that captured Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in early April 2003 did not act to protect cultural sites so long as active combat continued. They neither took up protective positions at major cultural sites in the cities or significant archaeological sites in the countryside. 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. Having demobilized the Iraqi army and police force, Coalition commanders appear to have done little or nothing to prevent acts of looting and destruction in Baghdad, even though tanks and detachments of foot soldiers, were stationed in the central city, until April 13th (some sources say April 16), 2003, when a tank pulled up outside the Iraq National Museum. during April 9-13 when the worst of the looting and destruction at the Iraq Museum and Iraq National Archives occurred.

See: Nabil al-Tikriti, “Iraq Manuscript Collections, Archives & Libraries Situation Report” (June 8, 2003) [Oriental Institute, University of Chicago ]

Art scholars warned that looting would begin as soon as public order breaks down, just as it did in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, when several regional museums were looted.

Parenthitically, 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 in the National Library) appear to have had political or sectarian motivations; some looters, particularly at the National Archives were professionals, removing copper wiring, windows and doors; and by all the accounts the smallest group of all were the well-organized art thieves who worked methodically, cutting off the heads of heavy stone statures with special saws stealing only the most valuable works, and apparently knew what they were stealing. 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. Meanwhile, 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. Meanwhile the damage continued for days.

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.  The 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 much of its card catalogues and computer files, including unique records of archaeological digs. Of the 40 most important objects taken, the famous alabaster “Warka Lady” (3100 B.C.), "Warka Vase" (3200 B.C.) and the King Entemena of Lagash (2450 B.C.) 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. B.C.).

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)

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 Mark Fisher, “Tomb Raiders” in The Guardian (January 19 , 2006)

However, as looting and damage to major institutions in Baghdad subsided around April 13-15, 2003 destruction to second-tier cultural properties continued intermittently until mid- to late June. Affected sites included the 12th century ‘Abbasid Palace, the 14th century Madrasa al-Mustansiriya, the 16th century Saray Mosque; some were set on fire, others were looted of contents and architectural details. Even parts of the Ottoman Qishla (barracks complex) in Baghdad was dismantled brick by brick. No explanation for the delay in stopping this type of anarchy promptly can be found other than the obvious: an insufficient number of 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. 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,” in Museum News, American Association of Museums (January/February, 2007)

Initially, Coalition Forces 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, Professor 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, intentional destruction) caused by Coalition inaction may be greater in scope, damage to important cultural sites caused by deliberate, often misguided, Coalition action are no less significant. They have had an especially harsh impact on old neighborhoods, including much of 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 destroyed 65 mosques in the attack on Falluja in November 2004, while Coalition aerial and ground attacks have reduced old buildings to rubble in Tal Afar, Ramadi, Samarra and a number of other cities.

Serious, perhaps irreversible, damage has occurred to important archeological sites, ancient Babylon and Ur, 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, dropped tons of gravel next to a Greek theatre built for Alexander of Macedon 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.

Dr. John Curtis, Keeper of the British Museum 's Near East Department, issued a scathing report on the overall damage. He found military fortification sandbags shoveled full of archaeological material from the site, including shards, bones, and ancient bricks. Parts of ancient buildings had collapsed. International scholars and Iraqi leaders pled with US commanders, but the camp was not vacated until January 15, 2005 . The Polish government later apologized for its complicity.

Neglect and Lack of Protection of Cultural Property During Occupation.  In the early days of the occupation, in response to public criticism of the looting, the US and UK governments announced that they would take vigorous steps to recover the objects stolen from the National Museum, restore damage to the National Library and revive the culture of Iraq that had been so badly served during the era of Saddam Hussein. The State Department, USAID, the Library of Congress, the British Museum and the British Council all launched special programs. Even the Pentagon, the FBI and the US Customs service got involved.

On April 15 2003, three days after the first news of the looting, the British Museum convened a press conference to pledge UK and international support for Baghdad 's plundered National Museum . Ironically, during the news conference, a satellite phone call to the head of Iraq 's Board of Antiquities revealed that the museum was still unprotected and exposed to further looting. After protests by scholars and embarrassment at Downing Street , Coalition troops finally arrived to secure the museum the following day.

Washington later 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. Iraqi clerics meanwhile had denounced cultural thievery and insisted that stolen objects be returned. An international effort eventually recovered, repurchased or seized in customs more than five thousand objects. But in October 2003, after just six months, commanders reassigned Bogdanos and the hunt for museum objects lost momentum.

In the early days of the occupation, the Coalition Provisional Authority also named special advisors on cultural matters. John Agresto, the new CPA higher education chief, asked for an allocation of $1.2 billion to revive Iraq 's universities. But he got only $9 million in the 2004 budget, as official enthusiasm quickly waned.] When he departed in 2005, he was not replaced. A similar fate befell René Teijgeler, a Dutchman who was named Senior Consultant for Culture, with a portfolio that included libraries and museums. The CPA budgeted so little that Teijgeler could not begin to address the emergency. CPA chief Paul Bremer clearly had little interest in the subject. When Teijgeler left in 2005 he, too, was not replaced.]

The Library of Congress proposed an expansive plan for a new National Library, as well as a training program for Iraqi librarians, elaborated during a special mission to Baghdad in October, 2003. The Washington experts decided that the new library should be housed in a beautiful modern building by the Tigris that had been the Senior Officers' Club in the Saddam era. The CPA applauded the idea and the US press was duly alerted. But in the end, Bremer gave the Officers' Club to other supplicants, and virtually all the promised US assistance to restore the National Library came to naught.

Saad Eskander took office as the National Library's new Director in December 2003. Though eight months had passed after the fires and looting, the building was still “in a ruinous state.” “There was no money, no water, no electricity, no paper, no pens, no furniture,” he later reported. The CPA had allotted the Library a budget of just $70,000 for 2004, to cover all expenses, including repairs and the purchase of new furniture and equipment. Eskander concluded after a year in office that “The Library of Congress team seems to have forgotten its promises.”

The Museum and the Library – Further Developments. The National Museum has regained some of its collections, but the institution has never recovered. Donny George, President of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and Director of the National Museum fled to Syria in August 2006 and from there he submitted his resignation. Before leaving Iraq , he ordered the doors of the National Museum sealed with concrete to protect against further looting. George found “intolerable” the ongoing failure of Iraqi leaders and the US military to protect the archeological sites. In Baghdad , the Culture Ministry has not announced plans to reopen it. Surrounded by weeds, it now sits behind metal gates, sandbags and concertina wire, another symbol of the unraveling occupation.

The story of the National Library is grim, but slightly more hopeful. Director Saad Eskander managed to rebuild his institution in spite of US and UK neglect. With small grants from the Czech Republic and help from two NGOs, as well as Iraqi government budget support, Eskander managed to restore the damaged library building, enlarge his staff, and begin the difficult task of restoring the catalogue and conserving damaged holdings. His multi-ethnic and non-political staff includes Sunni, Shia, Kurds and others. The library obtained computers and internet access thanks to Italian and Japanese help and it has managed to open regularly to the public. But the Library has not been spared the violence of occupied Baghdad nor has it had proper protection. Eskander has posted a chilling blog on the internet, where he has told of the killing of members of his staff and a car bombing of an important publishing house. Through guts and determination, the library continues its work but it is unclear how long it can continue.


Under the Geneva Conventions, occupation forces must ensure public order and prevent looting. More specifically, the Geneva and Hague Conventions require the protection of cultural property against destruction and theft and prohibit its use in support of military action. The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) further specifies that an occupying power must take necessary measures to safeguard and preserve the cultural property of the occupied country and must prevent or put a stop to “any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property.” The Coalition has ignored and violated these international laws, resulting in great and irreparable damage to the cultural heritage of Iraq and all humanity.

























Click to view scenes of the Iraq
Museum in Baghdad after the
2003 invasion and the subsequent
U.A. Army CID - FBI - U.S.
Treasury investigation into the
looting of the Museum.
© 2007 Journeyman Pictures. All rights reserved. Free Quicktime Player required.

At least 90 mosque bombings
took place in Baghdad alone during the 15 months between
the first and second bombings
of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra

The tower of the Abu Hanifa Shrine
in Baghdad was hit by a rocket on September 3, 2003. Photo ©
Christian Peacemaker Teams.

CENTCOM targeting image of
the Khulafah Al Rashid Mosque
in Falluja prior to an attack -
09:25 AM Nov 10, 2004. Photo

Top: US Army (USA) Sergeant (SGT) Pete Heap assigned to Charlie Troop, 1-4 Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division descends the stairway at the Minaret in Samarra near Ad Dwr, Iraq,
during Operation IRAQI
FREEDOM. Camera Operator:
Photo taken: 17 Nov 2004.

Middle: Spec. Denver Claywell,
of Winchester, VA, 1st Batallion,
26th Infantry Regiment, uses his sniper scope to look out over
Samarra from atop the Minaret.
Photo: J White, Washington Post.

Bottom: April 1, 2005 photos
of the bombed out area at the
top of the Minaret after U.S.
forced vacated. Photos: AFP




Salman Pak military facility,
March, 2003, with blue shield
protection symbol on the roof.
Australian DoD satellite photos