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Iraqi Sanctions & Archaeology

Dear All,
this article appeared on the Financial Times, August 4.
Ornella Sangiovanni
Italian Campaign "Break the Sanctions!"/Bridge to Baghdad
PERSPECTIVES: Going for an Iraqi dig? Don't forget the AK-47: Rose George uncovers some of the damage caused to archaeology by United Nations sanctions against Baghdad
Financial Times; Aug 4, 2001

It is a dry and bumpy road to the 4,000-year-oldhouse. We are in the desert region of UmAl Aqareb,or Mother of Scorpions, named after its poisonous inhabitants, on the way to the ancient Sumerian site of Shmet, two hours south of Baghdad.

There is a sandstorm brewing in the air, and parasites from Iraq's wrecked water system brewing in my belly.

We have crossed the 32nd parallel, into the no-fly zones where UK and US jets have in the past shown sometimes scant ability to distinguish between military and civilian traffic. I'm glad of the protection in the front seat, in the shape of our guide for the day, cradling a Kalashnikov. To visit an archaeological site in Iraq, it's with an AK-47 or not at all.

Armed archaeology is far from melodramatic in modern Mesopotamia. Plenty has been written about the appalling disintegration of society and economy in modern Iraq, or its malnourished children. Less exposed is the evisceration by sanctions of its 9,000 years of history.

The land of Babylon, Ur and Nineveh, with more than 10,000 official sites, is gold dust for archaeologists and looters alike. But since 1991, the foreign archaeologists' camps have lain empty, with academic and cultural exchanges forbidden under sanctions, and the looters have had the upper hand.

"Instability is a green light for anyone interested in antiquities," says Donny George, an urbane Assyrian Christian who runs the research department at Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad.

The instability began soon after the five-week bombing of Iraq by the Gulf war allies in 1991; during the uprisings in southern and northern Iraq, museums were emptied, and museum guards threatened with machine- guns. At least 4,000 artefacts went missing.

In 1994-95, things got bad again, as Iraq wasn't yet selling oil under the United Nations oil-for-food programme. Looters organised themselves into gangs, turning up with bulldozers to dig new holes, or scavenge old ones, protected by guards armed with machine-guns.

The security forces only rarely had the money or manpower to fight back. In one incident, a battle between soldiers and 40 looters lasted 24 hours. "When I spent two years at a dig in the south, I was armed every day," says George.

Archaeology is held in high esteem in Iraq. Saddam Hussein sends Donny George his reports back with careful notes in the margin. Iraq's president has rebuilt Babylon, to the fury of Unesco and other international cultural organisations, and has had his name inscribed on a plaque next to Nebuchadnezzar's.

"Whenever the seat of government was strong, the first thing they did was rebuild the ancient cities," says George in mitigation.

But the Iraqi government, sitting on the world's second-largest oil reserves but unable to feed its children, is hardly in a position of strength.

"In about 1995 things shifted," says George. "We began planning how to live with sanctions. People started to believe they would have to live with them. They adapt."

But only in 1999 did the government decide to fight back. Funds - probably from illicit oil sales - were provided for 24-hour armed guards at four sites. The National Museum was reopened after an eight-year closure, and its research departments expanded. Selling antiquities outside the country became a treasonable offence, punishable by death.

Last year, 10 wealthy businessmen from Mosul - who chopped an Assyrian bull's head in pieces and took it to Jordan - were executed on TV. It's draconian, but necessary, says George. "There was an exhibition in Israel recently of 'recent objects from Iraq', but they didn't say how they got them."

Mohammad, the young archaeologist in charge at Shmet, used to earn 3,500 dinars (about Dollars 1.50) a month. Doctors earn a paltry 20,000 dinars a month (pre-sanctions, they earned 3.5m dinars a month). "But we weren't losing doctors," says George. "We were losing archaeologists." So the salary was raised to 30,000 dinars a month and there are now 70 young archaeologists in training.

Paying for loyalty also applied to the guards, and local sheikhs were charmed into co-operating. At least in the Mother of Scorpions, the offensive has kept looters at bay, even if not everyone's motives are the same.

"I've fired my gun at thieves," explains our guard Ahmed. "But I fire it in the air. If I shoot someone, I'd have to pay blood money. If I kill someone inside the site, it's cheaper than outside, because it's government property. I'd have to pay at least 2m dinars. Government laws don't apply in the villages."

No matter how fierce Ahmed and his fellows are, it may be too late. Even if sanctions were lifted tomorrow - and the recently proposed "smarter" sanctions actually appeared more restrictive than existing ones - Iraq's economy would take decades to recover. Its children will take longer, and its cultural riches may never recover at all.

At Shmet, where two dozen labourers are digging out a Sumerian manor house with their bare hands, the land is dotted with square holes, a shockingly pockmarked moonscape carved out with bulldozers.

There is an occasional gleam in the gloom, however. Visit the office of Mudhafar Amin, head of the Iraqi interests section at the Jordanian embassy in London, and you will notice a 4,000-year-old stone head of the goddess Medusa, perched on his filing cabinet.

Carved from the walls of the ancient site of Hatra, smuggled to Jordan by a mysterious Italian, ending up in London in an antique dealer's window, it was recognised by an Italian archaeologist who promptly called the police.

Scotland Yard descended on the dealer. Detective Constable Miki Volpe of the Yard's Art and Antiques Squad then restored the head to the Iraqis. "We are so grateful," says Mudhafar Amin in his office. And not a little surprised.

"This is the first time, to my knowledge," says Volpe, "that an Iraqi artefact has been seized in this country and returned to the Iraqi government."

But it's impossible to speculate why it happened this time: British officials claimed to know nothing about it.

In any case, many more heads would have to be recovered before Donny George felt new optimism.

"There is a saying," he says, back in Baghdad. "A man shoots a bow. The further back you pull the bow, the further the arrow will fly. The more antiquities, the stronger the nation."

By this measure, the strongman of Iraq is - at least in one respect - weaker indeed.

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited

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