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[casi] German Professor Sommerfeld Reports on Looting of Iraqi Museum

Last week I posted a strange piece of news which amounted to a denial of the
looting of the Iraqi Museum.
What follows is the English translation of a recent article (published in
Sueddeutsche Zeitung last Friday) by renowned German professor Walter
Sommerfeld, an expert on Iraqi heritage and "one of the first German
scientists to visit Iraq after the war".

What he writes goes to confirm the worst news we have heard. Interestingly,
however, Sommerfeld asserts that most of the inventory lists remained intact.


Plundering of Museums in Baghdad.
"Go in Ali Baba! It´s all yours." - called the Americans

Crime-scene Baghdad: Eyewitnesses report that American soldiers literally
opened the gates and the doors to looters of Iraqi museums. Plundered articles
were often sold off openly on the streets the very same day.

By Walter Sommerfeld

Translated by George Paxinos

Almost a week after the plundering of the Iraq Museum, on the 16th of April, a
tank appeared, as had two some days previously gone to the museum -- but not
to protect cultural objects.
Source: AP

(SZ Süddeutsche Zeitung 08.05.2003)- Since the fall of Baghdad, anarchy has
reigned in this city of five million. Everyone is armed to the teeth, and
shooting can be heard around the clock, especially at night. Shots are fired
in warning, in fear, or in celebration, when a district is suddenly supplied
with power for two hours a day. The greatest worry is therefore security. All
former government employees, hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors,
professors and civil servants, have not been paid for almost two months.
Theft, robbery and murder are daily fare. Armed robbers commit carjacking in
broad daylight. On the other hand, neighborly help is experiencing an upsurge.
Many districts have formed citizens' protection groups, and everyday folk
control traffic with home-made signs. The Iraqis are artists at improvisation.

Particularly shocking for most Iraqis was the fervor with which their
infrastructure and cultural heritage has been destroyed. Many independent
eyewitnesses  are unanimous about this. Apparently the infrastructure of this
ancient state was systematically plundered, district by district. Whatever was
not worth the taking, was destroyed. In museums, libraries and cultural
centers, in the country's 15 universities, in every ministry with the
exception of the Ministry of Oil, in hospitals, state warehouses, hotels,
banks, palaces of government ministers, and also in the German Embassy, the
French Cultural Institute and the UN-Building. Even at the beginning of May,
plundering continued throughout the day.

>>A resident reports how US soldiers commanded chance Iraqi bystanders on the
museum grounds, to go into the museum and help themselves: "This is your
treasure, get in!3<<

These lootings were instigated or tolerated. Many Iraqis report on futile
attempts to get soldiers to intervene. Even appeals to the command center in
the Palestine Hotel remained fruitless. Looters were both simple people from
the poor quarters and wealthy residents of the neighborhood. People stole for
reasons of poverty, anger, revenge or greed, and their spoils were often sold
off the same day on the streets.

The most surprising detail in all reports was the assertion that American
soldiers often made the looting possible at all, by breaking open or unlocking
well-protected doors and then animating bystanders to plunder: "Go in, Ali
Baba, its yours!3 -- shouted the Americans, say Iraqi eyewitnesses. Among
Americans., "Ali Baba" has become an almost generic term for Iraqi looters. A
member of the UN Development Agency observed how Americans forced open the
Technical University, opened computers and removed their hard drives, before
allowing looters in.

Many Iraqis speak openly about these incidents, but wish to remain anonymous
out of fear of reprisals and because they must now work with Americans. This
also applies to the staff and residents of the Iraqi Museum, more especially
as their observervations were so explosively shocking. On Tuesday, the 8th of
April, fierce fighting occurred around the museum, as it lies in the center of
town and is surrounded by strategically important points. The armed civil
guard designated to protect the museum had to retreat in fear from the
premises, which then fell into the hands of the Americans.

>>Only after one of the Directors managed to reach a colleague at the British
Museum via a borrowed satellite phone, who mobilized British and American
authorities in London, did tanks roll up, which have been there since.<<

A high-ranking museum official reports that the day after, two tanks rolled
up, and American soldiers broke open the doors of the main building and spent
around two hours unobserved in the display galleries. Afterward, they removed
certain objects and transported them away. Which objects these were, could not
be identified by him or other observers. What is certain is only that most of
the large and conspicuous exhibits were still present, due to their difficulty
of transportation, and that only the smaller exhibits had been removed from
their display cases to storerooms.

A resident reports how US soldiers commanded chance Iraqi bystanders on the
museum grounds, to go into the museum and help themselves: "This is your
treasure, get in!3 For three days the plunderers worked unhindered and carried
away their booty in front of running cameras.  The few museum employees who
had returned to work tried desperately to get American troops to protect the
museum. A few soldiers turned up for a short while, looked at what was going
on and disappeared again with the remark: "This is not our order."

Afterward, employees worried that as everywhere else, fires would be laid,
destroying the irreplaceable documentation, the excavation reports and the
library. Two directors of the Department of Antiquities therefore went on the
Sunday to the US Command Center at the Palestine Hotel. and had to wait for
four hours for an audience, before they were able to plead urgently for
protection. The commander promised to immediately send tanks and troops -- but
two days later, nothing had happened yet. Only after one of the Directors
managed to reach a colleague at the British Museum via a borrowed satellite
phone, who mobilized British and American authorities in London, did tanks
roll up, which have been there since.

Today, the Iraqi Museum is the best-protected museum on Earth. Its workers and
even its directors, who are now cleaning up without pay and cataloguing the
damage, are allowed in only after personal and baggage security checks -- and
are very indignant: "We decide, who enters and when" said a soldier on guard
at the entrance.
Recovered objects are stored in a side building. As the Director General
showed me around, the tables held hardly more than 100 pieces, protected by
perhaps a dozen soldiers, who had erected their field bunks next to them.

With certainty, some of the most well-known exhibits of the museum, which had
still been in the display galleries, have disappeared (see list). The looters
broke open the storeroom undisturbed, whose contents ran to over 170'000
inventoried items. Only since a few days ago, has a generator been able to
restore lighting, and the staff been able to take stock of the damage. The
library remained intact, also the excavation records and apparently too most
of the inventory lists. There has not been a total loss, but it seems that the
greater part of the collection has been looted.

Stolen antiquities were particularly sought-after by journalists, so that
armed gangs specialized in robbing them along the 500-kilometre long highway
from Baghdad to the Jordanian border. One of those robbed reported that after
he was robbed of his car, the first thing the bandits wanted to know was:
"Where are the antiquities?" In one journalist's car, twelve boxes of
antiquities were turned up.

The most precious and non-insurable artifacts, among them the famous
gold-finds from the Assyrian Queens' Graves in Nimrod, were stored in the safe
of the Central Bank. Here too, looters had long had a free hand, but meanwhile
it has also been protected by soldiers. Even the Directorship of Antiquities
does not have any information about what remains of these treasures, or where
they may be now.

On the other hand, even after the international outcry over cultural pillaging
in Iraq, the ongoing destruction is still being tolerated. A European female
colleague and an Iraqi lady archaeologist report that in Babylon, the most
famous city of Antiquity, looting and burning had continued up until a few
days ago. Among others, the documentation of Iraqi excavations there has been
burned. As in Baghdad, representatives of the Department of Antiquities
pleaded in vain with US troops, who had housed themselves in one of Saddam's
palaces, only to be told: "This is not our order"

The 15 universities of Iraq have been totally looted and burned. Only the
University of Baghdad in Djadaria remained untouched. There, Americans had
made their headquarters.
Of the infrastructure of the Mustansanja University, along with that of
Bologna the oldest in the world, nothing has been left -- even fixed
installations were dismantled -- including the electrical wall-sockets, and
the campus burned down. On the campus of the Arts Faculty of the University of
Baghdad in Wazinja almost everything has been destroyed, also its Department
of Archaeology, which as extension of the Iraqi Museum delineates the sources
of the more than 5'000 year-old period of high culture. The fires have caused
several buildings to collapse. Of the Library of the Germanistic Section,
which contained over 15'000 volumes, only solidified slagheaps of ash remain.

In the meantime, professors and students have begun clearing up the debris.
Even this is difficult: the gasoline reserves of Baghdad are being depleted,
station after station is closing down, to get gas, one must line up for up to
five hours, the price of gasoline has risen tenfold, and one can no longer
afford to drive to the university. Some rooms have been provisionally
reopened, individuals pay for padlocks out of their own pockets, so that their
work is not destroyed anew.

On May 17, the universities are scheduled to reopen -- without furniture,
libraries, paper, or administrational records. Not textbooks and computers,
but brooms and shovels, will be the most important working tools now, and the
lecturers will have to each science from memory alone. Many wish to do it for
the sake of the students, so that they will not lose an entire year.

"Under Saddam, it was bad, but now it is worse. Why was this done to us?"
asked the director of the Department of Archaeology of the University of
Baghdad: "Our future looms darkly. We have trust in nothing. We only wish to

The Author is Professor of Oriental Philology in Marburg, and has toured Iraq
for the past 20 years. He was one of the first German scientists to visit Iraq
after the war.

Translated from an article in Süddeutschen Zeitung a German newspaper.

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