I was in the kitchen, sitting at my computer, when I suddenly burst into tears and covered my face with my hands.
“What is it?” Patrick asked from the front room.
I said, “I’m so ashamed—this shouldn’t hit me harder than hearing about people—but—”
“I know exactly which news story you’re looking at,” he said.Looters have stolen almost everything from the National Museum of Iraq, one of the world’s great museums of antiquities. It’s the national museum of Mesopotamia, for god’s sake:
BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 12 — The National Museum of Iraq recorded a history of civilizations that began to flourish in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia more than 7,000 years ago. But once American troops entered Baghdad in sufficient force to topple Saddam Hussein’s government this week, it took only 48 hours for the museum to be destroyed, with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters.Why mince words? Call it one of the greatest cultural disasters, period. We and all the generations to come have suffered a terrible loss, and we’ll never get it back. We’re all poorer. You can cap a burning oil well. This is irreparable.
The full extent of the disaster that befell the museum only came to light today, after three days of frenzied looting that swept much of the capital.As fires in a dozen government ministries and agencies began to burn out, and as some of the looters tired of pillaging in the 90-degree heat of the Iraqi spring, museum officials reached the hotels where foreign journalists were staying along the eastern bank of the Tigris River. They brought word of what is likely to be reckoned as one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history.
A full accounting of what has been lost may take weeks or months. … What was beyond contest today was that the 28 galleries of the museum and vaults with huge steel doors guarding storage chambers that descend floor after floor into darkness had been completely ransacked. Officials with crumpled spirits fought back tears and anger at American troops, as they ran down an inventory of the most storied items that they said had been carried away by the thousands of looters who poured into the museum after daybreak on Thursday and remained until dusk on Friday, with only one intervention by American troops, lasting about half an hour, at lunchtime on Thursday.We knew this was going on, but we did nothing. Why? because we don’t have enough troops. There may be enough of them to deal with the fighting in Baghdad and beyond. There aren’t enough of them to maintain civic order.
This is Rumsfeld’s fault, him and Richard Perle and all the others—including Mr. Bush, on whose watch it happened—who repeatedly overruled our own military planners, and insisted on cutting troop allotments to a fraction of what was needed. Rumsfeld didn’t go to war with a serious heart. He went into it looking to buy a reelection campaign on the cheap.This is the real failure to support our troops. Rumsfeld’s left them in dire straits. Our guys are stretched way too thin, and they’re not in control of the situation. This is why little 19-year-old supply clerks are getting shot to pieces. It’s why our soldiers are having to use inappropriate munitions, and in moments of stress and uncertainty are shooting at civilians. It’s why we can’t spare the manpower to preserve hospitals and museums from looters.
Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East. As examples of what was gone, the officials cited a solid gold harp from the Sumerian era, which began about 3360 B.C. and started to crumble about 2000 B.C. Another item on their list of looted antiquities was a sculptured head of a woman from Uruk, one of the great Sumerian cities, from about the same era, and a collection of gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings, also from the Sumerian dynasties and also at least 4,000 years old.Old gold is terribly vulnerable. It’s easily identified as long as it stays in its original form. Melt it down, and who’s to say what it used to be or who owned it? It’s yours now.
But an item-by-item inventory of the most valued pieces carried away by the looters hardly seemed to capture the magnitude of what had occurred. More powerful, in its way, was the action of one museum official in hurrying away through the piles of smashed ceramics and torn books and burned-out torches of rags soaked in gasoline that littered the museum’s corridors to find the glossy catalog of an exhibition of “Silk Road Civilizations” that was held in Japan’s ancient capital of Nara in 1988.I’m sure it breaks our commanders’ hearts that they can’t defend the hospitals and museums and the general civic order. It wouldn’t have taken a lot of men and firepower to keep the museum and the main hospital from being stripped. But they don’t have even that much margin. They can’t afford to pay attention to anything but the fight.
Turning to 50 pages of items lent by the Iraqi museum for the exhibition, he said that none of the antiquities pictured remained after the looting. They included ancient stone carvings of bulls and kings and princesses; copper shoes and cuneiform tablets; tapestry fragments and ivory figurines of goddesses and women and Nubian porters; friezes of soldiers and ancient seals and tablets on geometry; and ceramic jars and urns and bowls, all at least 2,000 years old, some more than 5,000.
“All gone, all gone,” he said. “All gone in two days.”
An Iraqi archaeologist who has participated in the excavation of some of the country’s 10,000 sites, Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, said he had gone into the street in the Karkh district, a short distance from the eastern bank of the Tigris, about 1 p.m. on Thursday to find American troops to quell the looting. By that time, he and other museum officials said, the several acres of museum grounds were overrun…
Muhammad spoke with deep bitterness toward the Americans, as have many Iraqis who have watched looting that began with attacks on government agencies and the palaces and villas of Mr. Hussein, his family and his inner circle broaden into a tidal wave that targeted just about every government institution, even ministries dealing with issues like higher education, trade and agriculture, and hospitals.American troops have intervened only sporadically, as they did on Friday to halt a crowd of men and boys who were raiding an armory at the edge of the Republican Palace presidential compound and taking brand-new Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
American commanders have said they lack the troops to curb the looting while their focus remains on the battles across Baghdad that are necessary to mop up pockets of resistance from paramilitary troops loyal to Mr. Hussein.What can any of us say that would console Mr. Muhammed and Mr. Rahman?
Mr. Muhammad, the archaeologist, directed much of his anger at President Bush. “A country’s identity, its value and civilization resides in its history,” he said. “If a country’s civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush. Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a humiliation. If we had stayed under the rule of Saddam Hussein, it would have been much better.”
The looting appeared to have its heaviest impact on a security guard at the museum, Abdul Rahman, 57, who said he had tried to stop the first band of looters breaking through to steel gates at the rear of the compound on Thursday morning. He said he gave up when the looters started firing in the air with pistols and rifles. “They were shouting, `There’s no government, there’s no state, and we will do what we like. We will take anything we want.’ They said `Open up, open up, there’s no more Saddam so we can do what we like.’ “Mr. Rahman said he returned to his room and remained there for two days, hiding and heartbroken.
And one more thing: Anyone who thinks we’re in control of Baghdad is kidding himself. People who think civil order is going to be reinstated anytime soon don’t loot hospitals. They don’t announce that there’s no government and no state. The American press may be next to useless, but when the guys who are there on the ground think it’s a good idea to lay their hands on hospital supplies now, you’ve got to figure they know something.