Global Policy Forum

For Sale: A Nation's Treasures


Iraqi officials fear that looters are funding the rebels

By Stephen Farrell and Rana Sabbagh-Gargour

Times (London)
July 2, 2005

The battered box labelled "Rothmans Cigarettes" stands in a Jordanian customs warehouse surrounded by tonnes of contraband tobacco. The mundane exterior hides extraordinary contents — 346 Mesopotamian clay stamps thought to date from Iraq's Sumerian civilisation, which lasted from about 4000BC to 2340BC. They were seized on April 9, two years after the fall of Baghdad led to the chaos that allowed Iraq's cultural heritage to be plundered and sold to Western collectors.

The scale of the pillaging has prompted the World Monuments Fund to put Iraq on its 2006 list of 100 most-endangered sites, the first time that it has listed an entire country. The fund said: "Widespread looting, military occupation, artillery fire, vandalism, and other acts of violence are devastating Iraq, long considered the cradle of human civilisation. "Today, such famous sites as the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, the ziggurat at Ur, the temple precinct at Babylon, and a 9th-century spiral minaret at Samarra have been scarred by violence, while equally important ancient sites, particularly in the southern provinces, are being ravaged by looters who work day and night to fuel an international art market hungry for antiquities."

Philippe Delanghe, Programme Specialist for Culture at Unesco's Iraq office in Amman, said that US satellite pictures studied at a meeting of concerned countries and agencies in Paris last week confirmed that organised gangs were behind some of the looting. The pictures showed holes in the ground dug by bulldozers, with vehicles waiting alongside to receive artefacts. "The smallest looting is people who live close to sites, do digs there, and try to get the pieces sold on the local market," Mr Delanghe said. "And then there is looting on a completely different scale — organised crime, organised gangs coming on sites. And they definitely have a link to the international black markets, where the pieces are sold and move on to auction houses."

Jordan is holding 1,347 statues, ivories, carvings and cuneiform seals taken from Iraq's museums and archaeological sites. Fawwaz Khraysheh, the head of the Jordananian Department of Antiquities, said that many were taken from storage houses in Mosul and Nasiriya, near the biblical city of Ur. The most valuable is an Assyrian ivory carving from 2000BC, believed to have adorned a king's bed that was looted from the National Museum in Baghdad and broken into pieces for easier transport.

Agencies such as Unesco, the FBI and Interpol are trying to halt the plunder. Unesco organised a six-week training session for Iraqi site guards and border patrols in Amman last year, and has supplied 45 cars with VHF radios and satellite phones to the Baghdad authorities to co-ordinate site inspections when it is safe. But the intercepted artefacts are probably a fraction of what is being plundered. Chiara Dezzi-Bardeschi, the head of Unesco's International Committee for the Safeguard of Iraq's Cultural Heritage, said that nobody knew the extent of the thefts. Among the most damaged areas was Umm al-Aqarib, a Sumerian site near Umma.

Lawlessness and poor communications also hinder a full assessment of the damage. Dr Abdul Aziz Hameed, the chairman of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, said: "In Iraq we have between 10,000 and 15,000 archaeological sites that people have been interfering with without our knowledge." He said that of 15,000 artefacts looted from the National Museum after the US invasion 3,627 pieces had been recovered inside the country, including the Warka Vase, a three-foot alabaster container from 3000BC. It was broken, but had been restored. A further 3,156 items from the museum and other looted sites were being kept safe in Jordan, America, Italy, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Dr Hameed said. "We hope the Iranians will give more assistance to us to stop smuggling Iraqi antiquities through the Iranian border."

Some Iraqi officials believe that cash from stolen artefacts is being used to fund insurgent groups. Donny George, director of the Baghdad Museum, said: "Rich people are buying stolen material. Money is going to Iraq, and they're buying weapons and ammunition."

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