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Iraq was turned into the world centre for the destruction and looting of some of humanity’s most ancient symbols of civilisation

And so it came to pass that not a single world renowned site or treasured museum was protected

The bombing last month of the 1,200 year old Samarra shrine, with its famous Golden Dome (see p32), came almost three years after the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But for many Iraqis it came as no surprise. Saddened, angered and disturbed ? Yes. Surprised? No. They have ceased to be surprised by almost anything since their country became the test ground for “shock and awe” bombardment, used by the allied forces to disarm Iraq of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Weeks before the start of the invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003, a meeting was held in the Pentagon to identify the whereabouts of the country’s numerous historic sites to protect these areas after the occupation. This was done at the request of American archaeologists, who harboured the illusion that Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of defence, and the generals at the helm of the war machine were at least concerned about Iraq’s and the world’s cultural heritage.

And so it came to pass that not a single world renowned site or treasured museum was protected. Indeed, for many days and weeks Iraq was turned into the world centre for the destruction and looting of some of humanity’s most ancient, lovingly and carefully preserved, symbols of civilisation. Some of the world’s most important libraries, home to Iraq’s written history and unique manuscripts, were deliberately torched by well organised gangs determined to destroy them. While occupation soldiers and tanks were being carefully positioned around the ministry of oil and the Saddam regime’s various intelligence headquarters, gangs of looters were allowed to take over the museums and libraries. While most Iraqis and the world expressed shock and anger, Donald Rumsfeld denounced the media for exaggerating the extent of the crisis. “It’s untidy,” Rumsfeld said. “And freedom’s untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes.”

If that was the man in charge of the military in Washington, what of his officers and soldiers in Iraq? Robert Fisk of the UK newspaper, The Independent, wrote this from Baghdad: “I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq's written history. But for Iraq, this is Year Zero: with the destruction of the antiquities in the Museum of Archaeology on Saturday and the burning of the National Archives and then the Koranic library, the cultural identity of Iraq is being erased. Why? Who set these fires? For what insane purpose is this heritage being destroyed?

When I caught sight of the Koranic library burning, flames 100ft high were bursting from the windows. I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines’ Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that ‘this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on fire’. I gave the map location, the precise name in Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn’t an American at the scene and the flames were shooting 200ft into the air.”

One of Iraq’s most respected guardians of the ancient treasures, Donny George, the former director of the Baghdad Museum, held back the tears and expressed the sadness and anger of most Iraqis: “This is what the Americans wanted. They wanted Iraq to lose its history.”

Neither Donny George nor the world knew then that after gangs had looted Iraq’s museums, US soldiers would then damage Babylon, for they were poised to enter the remains of the ancient city, 50 miles south of Baghdad, to use it as a military depot where 2,000 US and Polish soldiers were also to be stationed.

John Curtis, the keeper of the British Museum’s Ancient Near East department and an authority on Iraq’s many archaeological sites, visited Babylon in December 2004 and found “substantial damage” to the city’s remains.“This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain,” says his report, which was revealed by the UK newspaper, The Guardian.

The damage at Babylon included cracks and gaps where somebody had tried to gouge out the decorated bricks forming the famous dragons of the Ishtar Gate.

Dr Curtis saw a 2,600-year-old brick pavement crushed by military vehicles, archaeological fragments scattered across the site, and trenches driven into ancient deposits. Sand and earth, mixed with archaeological fragments, were gouged from the site to fill thousands of sandbags and metal mesh baskets to create defensive positions. When this practice was stopped, large quantities of sand and earth were brought in from elsewhere, contaminating the site for future generations of archaeologists, said the report.

Today, Donny George is again showing his concern, and I guess still expressing the feelings of many Iraqis, at the plan to engage a profit-making outfit to organise a commercial venture to move one of Iraq’s most treasured historical relics, the Nimrud gold, to Washington as part of an international tour (see pp1 and 10). The treasure has survived the war and the looting because it was stored in the vaults of the national bank. Aside from the risk to the treasure, the move is likely to be politically insulting to many Iraqis seeing their historical treasures taken to the capital of the main occupying power. The British Museum will be well advised to avoid association with this commercial vandalism. Neither the company nor the Iraqi government encamped in the Green Zone (where US and Iraqi government offices are based) should be trusted with such an important historical relic.

Amid the death and destruction caused by the occupation forces, as well as the sectarian and terrorist violence, Iraqis have lost their grip on their historical heritage. While some in the world media predicted an all out civil war following the blowing up of the Samarra shrine, they ignored the fact that thousands of angry marchers who thronged the streets of many cities did not accuse the Sunnis of the crime but the occupation. Little mention was made of the fact that the attacks were, as usual, carried out by masked gunmen protected by US-controlled Iraqi National Guard units. Almost no mention was made of the fact that it was a Sunni town, Samarra, which protected the shrine for 1,200 years. It is not Iran’s offer to donate money, a well established tradition, to rebuild the shrine that is likely to anger Iraqis but the fact that the continuing occupation is causing serious damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage. Ever since the invasion, Iraqi tears for the dead and injured have been mixed with their tears for the loss and destruction of their beloved historical heritage.

The writer, a political refugee from Saddam Hussein’s regime, is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Commercial and cultural vandalism'